How’s that for an evocative cover?
Spoiler alert: the entire novel is essentially as unsettling as that image.
Our unnamed narrator moves into a house in a “northern country”. We know that she is Jewish, the youngest of many children, and from the first sentence we know that this book will take us to unusual places. Of course, there’s dead cows, piglets possibly murdered by their own mother, phantom dog pregnancies. But this book isn’t about the things that happen, at least not entirely. It’s a story told by a somewhat unreliable protagonist, and the limits of language to express her complicated thoughts.
The narrator is guilty – this is her first and most consuming thought, though what she mainly feels guilty of is existing at all. Every part of existence as seen through her experience is more than a mere slog. She’s not simply isolated and melancholy – she is self serious, and utterly in thrall to the fact that for her to exist at all means that something is terribly wrong. This case of below-basement level self-esteem seems to be the result of, well, everything in her atmosphere.
Time, as I told my students today, is continuous – it always moves forward. But the novel allows us to explore time out of order, in loops. And sometimes, those loops offer the opportunity to see things more clearly. They offer both a contrast and a complement to the current reality of the characters, and the story is richer for that. In this story, however, these loops serve only to underscore the narrator’s undesirability to every human she encounters. She initially describes her placement in her family as someone who must serve everyone else – a caretaking role we typically ascribe to the eldest child (well, so long as the eldest is a girl). But in her case, she takes her commitment to obedience as a vital act of service she performs for her siblings. And she is devoted to her oldest brother most of all – she is fully prepared to serve any and all of his whims throughout her childhood, believing that it is only through this service that she can be purified of whatever it is that makes her so awful.
Romantic entanglements, working relationships, even engaging in her community as a neighbor – all of these social roles are full of riddles this narrator cannot solve. She struggles mightily with routines in her life, and thus she doesn’t really mind upsetting whatever sort of life she had in order to live with her brother, whose wife and child have left him. He’s bought a house in a country “up north”, a place associated with her ancestry. She does not and cannot speak the language of the natives, but she is more than willing to serve in her brothers home – to be as obedient to him and his wishes as he would have her be.
Through the course of staying with her brother, strange things begin to happen in this town. Objectively odd things, which it seems the villagers blame on the narrator. The brother’s health worsens. These are the things that happen – but most of the novel’s slim 180 pages are devoted far less to action and much more to the narrator’s complicated thoughts. Her self loathing oozes off the page, but so does her innate intelligence. I wish I could say wit – but this is a serious novel, and very little ever seems humorous.
I’m torn with determining how I actually feel about this novel. I honestly didn’t enjoy reading it very much – I expected it to be short and digestible and while in length it is short, it is very slow paced. I think this is a matter of decent book, wrong time for me, and so I’m holding back any judgements about writing quality because I think those are a byproduct of poor timing. Overall, for me, this book was interesting (I continue to think about it), but the elements did not fit together as well I as I wanted. The voice in this novel is intelligent, distinct, and often poetic – but there was something that I didn’t like, that I actively resisted. The sentences were often long, and it didn’t always feel insightful, it often felt … droning? I just wasn’t excited to pick up this novel, and I often had to call myself back to attention while reading it. And yet, it was interesting, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I’m sure that it would make an interesting reading experience at the right time!
If this sounds interesting to you, I hope it falls into your hands (or your ears, or your screen) at the right time for you.