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‘Sight’ by Jessie Greengrass ****

Jessie Greengrass’ debut novel, Sight, was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2018.  I had previously read, and very much enjoyed, her rich short story collection entitled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, and wanted to see how her prose style would unfold in a longer work.

Sight was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, and has been described variously as ‘undoubtedly that rare thing. a genuinely new and assured voice in prose’ (A.L. Kennedy), ‘an outstanding first novel’ (Times Literary Supplement), and ‘remarkable and affecting’ (Literary Review).  The novel’s blurb calls it ‘fiercely intelligent, beautifully written and deeply moving’.  It was something of a surprise to me to see that the novel has had rather a mixed reception with regard to the bloggers I follow, and the reviews which I have read on Goodreads.9781473652378

The novel is, essentially, a generational story about three females from the same family.  The narrator of the piece recounts her journey toward becoming a mother, whilst remembering her own late mother.  Woven in are a series of recollections from the childhood summers which she spent in London with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst, and the effects which this relationship had upon her.  The narrator’s own story is bound up with a series of important medical discoveries, and other historical elements, which help to build a wider narrative – for instance, the Lumiere brothers’ filmmaking, and the invention of the X-ray.

The opening paragraph sets the tone of the whole with such insight: ‘The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.’  The narrator has a young daughter, who has already ‘begun to lose, lately, the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood…  Once her thoughts broke like weather across her face, but that readable plasticity is gone and she is not so transparent: complexity has brought concealment.’  The narrator’s life is fraught with sadness, in many ways; not only does she feel that she is beginning to lose the bond with her daughter, but she has had to go through a long period of her mother’s health declining before her death: ‘Her muscles were unsprung, her joints unlocked’.  The effects of the bleed on the brain which her mother was found to have have been depicted in such detail: ‘As I sponged her head with water to get out the last of the soap from what was left of her hair or as I helped her dress I tried to be kind but for me to be so, for me to try to comfort or to shield her, to be more gentle with her than was necessary for the completion of the immediate task at hand, would have been only to more brutally invert our natural roles, and that itself would have been a kind of violence towards this woman who had always sought to protect me, to soften the impact of the world and keep me safe.’

Throughout, Greengrass has a profound understanding of her unnamed narrator.  She gives a series of poignant ruminations about grief, and what it feels like to be left behind.  Sight is almost heartbreaking in the fragility which it depicts: ‘If I thought, all through those freezing months I spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else – something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things.’

The relationship between the narrator and her mother is complex, and complicated: ‘Throughout the early stages of her illness I assumed that at some point in her dying the barrier between my mother and myself would be breached, no longer being necessary, and that through it some manner of truth would spill, coming as a trickle or a flood to engulf us and to wash us clean.’

The novel is a female-focused one; aside from the narrator’s partner, Johannes, who is the only named character, we learn very little indeed about other men in the family.  Her father leaves the family home when she is just a child, something which one would imagine would be highly affecting, but this is barely touched upon in her recollections.  Even Johannes appears as a shadowy being, existing in the narrator’s life, but always on the periphery about what she feels comfortable enough to reveal.

Sight is about the links, both biological and otherwise, between people, and how fragile they can be; how malleable, and how affecting.  The novel is a highly introspective one, and whilst not a great deal occurs in terms of the plot, the character portraits which Greengrass have built are sharp and realistic.  Sight feels both highly personal and evocative, and has such a depth of feeling about it.  The narrator sometimes feels rather cold, and I did not much like her, but I believed in her throughout, and found her a realistic construct.

Greengrass’ prose is intelligent and perceptive, and Sight feels like an immersive and multilayered novel from its very first pages.  The novel is filled with undercurrents, which rarely bob to the surface, but can always be felt.  The parallel historical stories work well, despite being a little confusing at first.  Greengrass’ approach feels both unusual and interesting, and the often frank prose feels quite profound in places.  The author has not sugarcoated anything; instead, she gives a raw portrayal of motherhood and maternity.  The loose threads of Sight are pulled together with skill, and the novel feels like an accomplished one, particularly given that it is a debut.

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‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy.  I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her.  A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.

Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is 9781844087129‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’  The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’  Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.

The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore.  She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’  She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf.  She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.

The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill.  Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her.  ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays.  Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’  The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’  This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’  She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’

A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform.  Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus:  ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation.  A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say.  The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’

It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two.  The feeling of eternity had vanished.  What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’

Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth.  She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life.  A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect.  Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’  She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’  Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’  The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely.  For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’

Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly.  She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’  Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla.  In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him.  Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging.  The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.

I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down.  Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers.  I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me.  A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.

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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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‘Rhyming Life and Death’ by Amos Oz **

I received a copy of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death from a dear friend for my birthday.  I had not read any of prizewinning author Oz’s work before, and was suitably intrigued by the blurb of this novel, which was first published in 2007, and has been translated from its original Hebrew by Nicholas Lange.  The Guardian calls Rhyming Life and Death ‘A master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on the themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera.’  The Scotsman declares it ‘a meditation on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death.’

9780099521020In the novel, which is set during the 1980s, an unnamed author spends a window of time, before he is due to give a reading, waiting in a bar in Tel Aviv ‘on a stifling hot night’, making up ‘the life stories of the people he meets.’  The story culminates in his asking a woman who declares herself a huge fan of his work for a drink.  Although she declines, he ‘walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat that night.  Or does he?  In Amos Oz’s beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins…’.

Rhyming Life and Death opens with a wealth of frequently asked questions which have been posed to ‘the Author’, as he is referred to throughout.  They include: ‘Why do you write the way you do?’, ‘Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?’, and ‘Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things?’  There are many such questions, and a lot of them cross the line between public and personal.

Oz’s writing errs on the sensual.  He seems particularly concerned with evoking the smells of Tel Aviv.  Of a man lying in the terminal ward of a hospital, he writes: ‘With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad and disinfectant.’  Sounds, too, are important to Oz’s descriptions of Israel, and they are paired in the novel with musings about the Author, and the strange power which his fans believe him to possess: ‘The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness.  Will the Author say something new this evening?  Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it?  Can he see something we haven’t seen yet?’

In this novel, Oz certainly gives insight into elements of what it is like to be a writer, and to be known.  The public throughout have quite unrealistic expectations of him, as, indeed, he has of others.  The stories which he invents of people whom he meets are often overly detailed.   I found some of these inventions more interesting than others, but the constant repetition of details did become tiresome rather quickly.  There are scenes here which are rather cringeworthy, and crammed with a series of cliched metaphors.

Whilst the novel was interesting enough to read, and I could never quite guess in which direction it was going, it has not made me want to pick up any of Oz’s other work in a hurry.  I found Rhyming Life and Death rather rambling and peculiar in places, and the story meanders rather than takes a natural path.  There is, however, a definite feeling of purpose to Oz’s chosen structure.  The novel is gritty at times, and muses upon the meaning of life.  I can certainly see why his writing has been compared to Kundera’s, but I must admit that on my experience of reading this book alone, I far prefer Kundera’s work to Oz’s.

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‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey *****

The Snow Child begins in November 1920 beside Alaska’s Wolverine River.  The novel, which is based upon a Russian fairytale, opens with the character of Mabel who has moved to the ‘wilderness silence’ of Alaska with her husband Jack.  The couple are previous residents of Pennsylvania.

9780755380534The tragic circumstances of their pasts are outlined from the start.  Mabel suffered a miscarriage ten years earlier, which has weighed on her mind and body ever since.  The couple are childless and have inadvertently moved to a secluded place which is void of children.  Their life together is consequently set against the backdrop of an all-invading winter darkness.

Ivey has woven a sombre darkness throughout the novel, which fits perfectly with both the setting and the characters.  As they realise just how isolated they are from the rest of the world, the loneliness of Jack and Mabel grows from the start and their relationship takes on a fractious hue.  The couple make their living with difficulty.  Jack is a farmer and Mabel sells homemade pies in the nearby town of Alpine, which is ‘nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched between the train tracks and the Wolverine River’.

Those around them try their best to help the couple, advising them on farming and how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.  One couple in particular, George and Esther Benson, seem to take Jack and Mabel under their wing.  They slowly begin to let others into the isolation which they have themselves created.  In essence, Jack and Mabel’s new life helps them to connect with others in their community, as well as those they believed they had lost.  Relationships grow, build and shift as the story moves forwards.

When the first snow of winter sets in, Jack and Mabel make the snow child of the novel’s title, an act which serves to bring them closer together.  It gives them a shared understanding and makes the balance of their relationship improve dramatically.  The morning after the snow child is made, Jack sees a figure dashing through the trees.  Both the relationship which the couple build with the snow child, and Ivey’s portrayal of it, are wonderful.

The Snow Child uses a third person narrative perspective throughout.  The chapters follow both characters equally and the thoughts of each character are shown within the narrative.  The inclusion of several letters between Mabel and her sister Ada was a lovely touch.  The interactions between Jack and Mabel are so touching.  The  characters have been formed with such sensitivity on Ivey’s behalf that their pain comes to life on the page.

Ivey’s writing style is beautiful.  It is clear that each word throughout the novel has been chosen with the utmost care.  The result is a wonderful flowing narrative which lends itself well to the story.  She sets the scene superbly with such vivid and well-written descriptions.

True to the form of traditional fairytales, The Snow Child is sinister and heartbreakingly sad in places.  The story is a beautiful one, filled with equal measures of hope and sadness.  It is a novel filled with small triumphs and kindnesses, a perfect wintry tale.  It is difficult to believe that The Snow Child is a debut novel.  It is incredibly accomplished, polished and skilled, and feels as though it was written by a master storyteller.

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‘Lost Things’ by Jenny Offill ****

I very much enjoyed Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, and happily hunted down her debut, Last Things, which was published in 1999.  The Irish Times calls the novel a ‘glorious debut’, and The Times writes that ‘Offill creates for Grace a mesmerising imaginary world…  She writes with a heartbreaking clarity… and is dextrously able to evoke emotional extremity through pitch-perfect narrative compression.’ 9781408879719

The protagonist and narrator of Last Things is Grace Davitt, who is seven years old when the novel begins, and who lives in Vermont with her parents.  She finds her volatile mother, Anna, ‘a puzzling yet wonderful mystery.  This is a woman who has seen a sea serpent in the lake, who paints a timeline of the universe on the sewing-room wall, and who teaches her daughter a secret language which only they can speak.’  Her father, schoolteacher Jonathan, is an antithesis to her mother; he trusts only scientific evidence, and ‘finds himself shut out by Anna as she draws Grace deeper and deeper into a strange world of myth and obsession.’

Offill captures her young protagonist’s voice wonderfully and believably.  She weaves in childish fantasies of Grace’s, which are rather lovely at times: ‘I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language’, for instance.  From its opening pages, the novel is an incredibly thoughtful one.  Grace imparts: ‘Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form.  I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.’  Throughout, and with the guidance of both her parents, Grace is trying to make sense of the world around her.  This is made more difficult, as her parents tend to disagree about everything.

Grace’s mother is bound up in stories which she fashions both for her daughter, and for herself.  These stories confuse Grace, and serve only to muddle the truth for her: ‘Sometimes I tried to guess which of my mother’s stories were true and which were not, but I was usually wrong.’  Anna takes Grace to a nearby lake each morning, before anyone else arrives, in order to try and catch a glimpse of a monster which she is convinced lives there.  She has some rather peculiar notions about the world, and how one should behave.  ‘Sometimes,’ Grace tells us, ‘my mother tired of looking for the monster and we’d go to the park instead.  The rule about the park was that we could only go there if we went in disguise.  Otherwise, men might stop and talk to us.’

All of the characters in Last Things have unusual quirks.  Grace’s babysitter, sixteen-year-old Edgar, is a science prodigy, who answers questions only if he is interested in the answer.  One morning, he imparts a dream of his, in which ‘one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold.’  Of her cousin, Grace states: ‘Grooming was important to Mary because she believed her portrait would one day appear on a dollar bill.  The summer before, she had sent away in the mail for a kit to start her own country.  Martyrdom, it was going to be called.  It wasn’t ready yet because there was a lot of paperwork to do, she said.’  Her father carries around a book entitled Know Your Constitution!, which he uses to write letters to the newspaper.

The family dynamic which Offill presents is fascinating.  Offill probes the decisions which Grace’s parents have made, and the sometimes amusing effects which they have had on their only child: ‘I had never been to church because my father had vowed to raise me a heathen.  A heathen was a godless thing, my mother explained.  In some parts of America, it was against the law to be one.  On Sundays, I watched from the woods as the Christians drove by.  The women had on dresses and the men wore dark suits.  Sometimes I threw rocks at their cars and waited to see what God would do.  Nothing much, it turned out.’

I rarely see reviews of Offill’s work, which I feel is a real shame.  I can only hope the this review has piqued someone’s interest in this novel, or her more popular Dept. of Speculation.  This novel is funny, and whilst at times it appears lighthearted, there is a darker undercurrent to it.  The characters are realistic creations, and will stay in your head for weeks afterwards.  Particularly for a debut, Last Things is accomplished, and has such a surety about it.

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