Recent Reading: Novels In Pieces

whistle-darkOnce again the two novels I’ve read most recently have, quite coincidentally, something in common, but this time it’s a matter of form rather than content. Both Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer are composed of assembled pieces — too long to be fragments, too short (mostly) to be chapters, always with a suggestive or quirky ‘headline.’ This structure made me slightly irritable in both cases. Why is this a thing to do? What’s the point–aesthetic or thematic? It seems to me the novelist equivalent of those long essays (we’ve all read them) that have little rows of asterisks instead of actual transitions between their parts. It looks unfinished to me. Go on, write the whole novel! We can wait to read it until then. 🙂

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I find I don’t have a great deal else to say about the novels themselves. I read them both fairly fast and with fairly rapt attention, which is something of an endorsement, though to some extent I think it’s also an acknowledgment that small brisk pieces are easier to consume than dense sustained narratives. (Could that be why … ?) Of the two of them, my strong favorite is Healey’s, which is a searching (literally and figuratively) story about a mother and her difficult teenage daughter, who goes missing for four days and then refuses to say where she was or what happened. Like Elizabeth Is MissingWhistle in the Dark effectively captures the stress of disorientation, of not knowing, of grasping at an elusive and also frightening truth. It also seems to me a very realistic portrayal of a mother’s frustration with being shut out and criticized precisely because she wants more than anything else in the world to help someone she loves. Even in situations less dire than that in the novel, that kind of emotional push and pull can be exhausting. Whistle in the Dark is grimmer than Elizabeth Is Missing: it has none of the whimsy and poignancy of Healey’s first novel and it takes us (again, both literally and figuratively) to darker places–even though in the end I suppose it tends in a happier direction, as there’s no escape, no epiphany, that can bring Maud back from her lost state, whereas we are left feeling hopeful about Jen and Lana.

My Sister, the Serial Killer seemed to me a deft piece of rather morbid and mordant entertainment: fast-paced, funny–in that “I can’t believe this is happening” way that isn’t really (IMHO) a particularly valuable form of wit, because it relies so much on shock–and superficially provocative. I think I would have liked and admired a novel that really grappled with the kind of conflict Braithwaite toys with: how far do you stand by someone committing unpardonable acts? What context, what background, what loyalty, what principle is worth more to you than holding someone accountable for murder? (This is a standard tool in the crime fiction kit, of course.) To me, however, Braithwaite’s treatment seemed glib and shallow and her protagonist’s choice morally indefensible without being interesting in any other way. Meh. YMMV.

In Brief: Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing

elizabeth-is-missing-1Elizabeth Is Missing gripped me from the first page. It is a poignant, sometimes funny, and often painfully suspenseful novel, not so much because of the mysteries it is structured around–the present puzzle about Maud’s missing friend Elizabeth and the question of what happened to Maud’s sister Sukey in the past–but because I was so anxious on Maud’s behalf. Maud is in her eighties and is just tipping over into senility, or perhaps dementia. Although her recollections of her childhood are vivid and detailed, she is losing her grip on her current everyday reality; everything from going to the store to making toast has become nearly impossible for her, but Maud doesn’t quite know that. So we follow along helplessly as she repeatedly wanders into trouble of one kind or another, in spite of the helpful notes she relies on as prompts and warnings (Coffee helps memoryDon’t cook anythingHaven’t heard from Elizabeth).

Healey does a superb job with Maud’s first-person narration. Her shifts in and out of clarity are subtle, and each time she loses the thread it’s a fresh little shock. She goes to Elizabeth’s house, for instance, looking for signs of her friend’s presence, and then decides to knock on the neighbor’s door to see what he knows. He’s a friendly young fellow with a friendly dog. “He’s just going for the sympathy vote,” says the young man;

“Hoping you’ve got a biscuit on you.”

I begin to look through my bag.

“Oh, no,” he says. “Don’t. We’ve got plenty, he’s just greedy. You’re not a friend of Mum’s, are you? Did you want something?”

“No,” I say. “No. Thank you.”

“Wasn’t it you who knocked?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, walking away.

Maud’s mental confusion is not just a gimmick: it is also integral to the unfolding mystery. Healey weaves the parts together effectively, bringing us closer and closer to understanding even as Maud struggles herself to see how the bits and pieces she is hanging on to and the seemingly random questions that, to everyone else’s annoyance, she just can’t let to of (Where is a good place to plant marrows?) belong together. 513shw2brvdl

The novel’s resolution is not, ultimately, much of a revelation, but it is still satisfying. What I appreciated most about it, and about the book overall, is that everything about it turns on love and loyalty. Elizabeth Is Missing is certainly a clever book, but it is never clever at Maud’s expense. Maud may forget why she went to the store, she may be baffled and annoyed by the interference of her long-suffering daughter Helen, but she knows that it matters what happens to the people we care about, and she knows that when we are worried about someone we should not stop trying to help them. The novel is suffused with tenderness, especially (though we see this only indirectly) Helen’s for her faltering mum. It’s the scenes between the two of them that will linger with me the longest. At one point Maud has wandered away from home and Helen, following, rests with her at a bus shelter. “How did you get this?” Maud asks, noticing a bruise on Helen’s wrist that she doesn’t remember was her own doing.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

“It matters to me. You’re my daughter. If you’re hurt, it matters to me. I love you very much.”

She stares at me for a moment and I worry I haven’t used the right words, and then I feel a sudden exhaustion.

Prompted by her companion, Maud sits down to rest and then turns “to say something to the woman who is sitting next to me, but tears are running down her cheeks. . . . I don’t know what to do to help her. I can’t work out who she is.” She struggles to figure out what’s wrong, and then the woman looks away and then looks back. “It’s Helen,” Maud realizes; “I’ve been sitting in a bus shelter with her, not knowing who she was.” There is relief in that recognition, in that restoration of identity, but there is also so much sorrow. The tragic story Maud recovers is better known–the truth itself matters, for love and for justice. There’s little comfort to be had, though, for Maud’s own encroaching tragedy with its inevitable end.