In surveying a wide variety of best book lists of the year, a book that has come up again and again is this novel by Jenny Offill. I’ve been wanting to read it since the summer when I noticed it sitting on a shelf in the new Foyles bookshop with its striking jigsaw cover. But seeing how highly valued it was by a wide range of people recently convinced me I should finally read it. I did so during one long afternoon on a plane while I was flying from London to Boston. I have to say reading on a plane does have a special sort of ethereal feel to it. Invariably when I read something good while flying it feels somewhat as if I’ve just had an intense hallucination. This novel is short enough that I could read the whole book during my journey. I’m glad I had that space to devote my full attention to it without the temptation to check email or social media in between chapters. It’s an intense peculiar novel that gives a fascinating perspective on relationships and life.
We aren’t told the narrator’s name and we’re not given the names of the main characters beyond their relationship to her like “husband” or “daughter.” Flashes of experiences are recounted. Disparate quotes and references are drawn in to produce thoughtful new perspectives. Wry commentary is made about how ego comes into play in all actions and especially when gauging our passion for those we’re closest to. Although images or thoughts seem to come out of nowhere at times they often pop up again later in the book to make more of an emotional impact. For instance, when describing a phrase from a particularly popular cat meme, the quote is reconfigured to hilarious and meaningful effect to describe her own existential yearning. It’s as if all the narrator has absorbed through life comes seeping out through her consciousness when it’s emotionally prescient. This makes the story feel very natural, but also can make it frustrating because so little is pinned down in specifics.
However, it seems to be an essential part of the narrator’s identity to be deliberately obtuse. She’s prickly and prone to dangerously self-destructive ways of thinking. As a counterpoint to the cosy vision of home life, she sharply observes that “The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.” There is a severity here as if it were survival which is constantly at stake and not the standard wayward passions of love. Unsurprisingly, sticking to conventions of marriage with children isn’t for her. Her relationship becomes increasingly complicated as her own ambitions clash against the demands of family life. She adamantly refuses to subsume her own desire to achieve things though she comments that “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.” She fights to maintain her independence with mixed results because she refuses to build relationships that are built upon too many compromises.
This is a striking and original book with a powerful voice which is alternately devastating and hilarious. It’s so appropriate that a puzzle features on the cover as at the end I felt in a muddle about how to fit all the narrator’s experiences and references together. The narrator herself seems to have the same dilemma. Because of this it’s effectively unsettling and thought-provoking.