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.’
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.