Novels can sometimes feel so emotionally raw it’s like the story has come straight out of the author’s unconsciousness without any editorial mediation. Rachel Elliott’s writing in “Whispers Through a Megaphone” has a primal power that is tied very closely to her central fictional creation of Miriam Delaney. This is a 35 year-old woman who has spent three years in her house without leaving except to step into her back garden. A traumatic event has caused this retreat from society. Here she mulls over her belief that she’s abnormal and her traumatic upbringing with her mentally ill mother Frances who taught her not to speak in more than a whisper. She chillingly observes that “The world is a safe place until it isn’t. People are good until they’re not.” Buried within these sentences is unfathomable trauma and pain. This novel is like a complex confession which gradually unfolds as several characters strive to make the connections they need to progress forward in their lives.
As a counterpoint to Miriam’s shut-in existence, this is also a novel equally about Ralph Swoon who gradually retreats from the pressurized life of friends and family until one day he walks out of his own birthday party. He’s a psychologist who is very good at empathizing with other people’s problems, but finds it very difficult to process his own. His wife Sadie is undergoing a personal crisis where she tries to reconcile her same-sex attraction to certain friends throughout her life. She keeps a private-public life separate from Ralph where she tweets frequently and these Twitter interactions are recorded in the text of the novel. She feels “What’s the point of an experience if you can’t share it? If you can’t tell other people what’s going on?” After rekindling a connection with her old friend Alison she gradually understands the importance of maintaining a degree of privacy in a relationship and how to manage her repressed longing.
While these central characters’ story lines follow an arc which shows their growth and development, I found at times Elliott’s focus veers off too sharply to briefly focus on other characters without giving them sufficient narrative space to grow. There are some fascinating people touched upon such as Ralph and Sadie’s son Stanley who has just entered his first gay relationship, Miriam’s neighbour Boo who obsessively cleans or an old flame of Ralph’s named Julie Parsley who independently runs a business and cares for her father. I wanted to know more about these characters, but we only get a glancing understanding of their fascinating lives. While presenting complex peripheral characters can really add to a main story, it can also be frustrating when it feels like the storyline rushes towards them but must quickly retreat to focus on the central characters again. By doing this, it feels like their independence isn’t being sufficiently honoured.
Miriam’s mother Frances is perhaps the character who receives the most uneven treatment. For much of the novel she comes across purely as a villain disrupting her daughter’s development in the most shocking and cruel ways. There are some fantastically perverse lines which hint at Frances’ deranged way of thinking such as “Her mother always said that love was for people with dirty houses.” Yet, something strange happens towards the end of the novel where her relationship with Miriam’s school Headmaster is expanded upon in a chance meeting between the two. It doesn’t give an insight into why Frances might have acted the way she did towards her daughter, but it suggests why she met an untimely end. However, instead of adding another layer of insight this felt jarring and problematic to me. Prior to this, we only get an external view of Frances and when we finally see her point of view it feels like it comes too late.
Nevertheless, this novel is full of life and vigour. Where it really shines is in moments of deep introspection and acute psychological observation. Elliott states how “The mind is a fairground of unearthly rides. Intrapsychic theme parks. The constant rattle of ghost trains.” The past is continuously drawn into the present of these characters’ reality causing them to stutter in their interactions with each other. Scenes happening now are frequently interspersed with paragraphs that abruptly leap backward to a crucial time in that character’s past. Elliott writes sympathetically about people who find it very difficult to reconcile their internal and external realities. She weaves a lot of humour and jovial human interaction into her story which provides welcome light relief from some of the darkest moments in this novel. “Whispers Through a Megaphone” is an emotional read whose story touchingly suggests people can thrive when they make the right crucial connections with others.