Annotation by Kate Maruyama
Wooo-hooo! from the opening lines of this book, the ghost voice of Sara is mesmerizing. There is a very good balance in this chapter of withheld information and revealed information, so that while we are unsure of where we are, we’re pretty certain of the rules and each new piece of revealed information is so fun to uncover. Smith gives such a beautifully free-floating flying sensation (again from the first line, as the fall of her death was fun going down) so that we feel like a ghost trying to get a grasp.
I wanted my heroine to lose her grip as I give her a voice, and she has done a little already, but I intend a little thievery from Smith when it comes to us seeing her lose her grasp from her consciousness. This story was a great inspiration to go back through my novel and have her forget, tastes, smells, those things that keep us anchored in life, so that we can see more why she so completely loses track of her husband when he goes…and of time and her surroundings.
As the book moved on, I became involved in each character fully, from the homeless Elspeth with her painful cough to the slightly wacky hotel manager Lise who gives her a room. It was nice how each character wove back into the other so that by the time that Penny sees the teenaged girl trying to open the panel in the wall we know exactly what that panel is and we have an inkling what the girl is after.
Where Smith lost me was in the sister’s monologue in the second to last chapter. It reminded me of Foer’s artful use of no punctuation and stream of consciousness in Everything is Illuminated. But that sequence, delivered by Alex, had complete structure and we knew from the beginning that we were being told something awful. The lack of punctuation helped build the emotion and added a hopeless franticness to the piece as it rushed breathlessly forward to its certain horrible end. But in the sister’s voice, Smith rambles. Teenagers ramble, but about halfway through the chapter, it was apparent her ramblings weren’t going to get anywhere…perhaps because the chapter started with the realization of how exactly her sister died. While it’s interesting how elements of Sara lingered in her life, Sara’s sister does not seem to have much of a story to tell and it reminded me a great deal of Rob’s constant repetition of, “The point is to have your reader wondering, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ not, ‘what’s going on?’” But this chapter was a very useful reminder as I do explore the imagined and lost space to keep my heroine anchored in some sort of identifiable world with its own recognizable rules.
Smith had such a knack for detail of physical environment and physical sensations. The hotel became a very tangible imagined space from its carpets sconces, odors and textures. Just Penny’s need to look at what was on the bedspread reminded us of where we were.
Aside from the ghost section, for its relevance to what I’m writing, Penny’s section was my favorite. She was such an amazing character. When a writer can give you someone you most likely wouldn’t get along with in real life and yet make you understand her thought processes and have some sympathy for her, she’s done a very difficult and clever thing. Penny is so clueless about what she sees and despite the strife of Sara’s sister finding the hole in the hotel down which Sara fell to her death, it is only relevant to Penny inasmuch as it relates to her. It’s totally brilliant, how she’s there helping until things get too strange: she is elated by the “new” until her handle on the situation loosens and it seems to be just miserable. And then she leaves. What kind of a person gets emotionally involved with a teenaged girl crying but once she realizes that the girl is truly troubled, walks away? Penny. And we get it. Penny’s following Elspeth is brilliant as well, she’s found a whiff of adrenaline and now she has to pursue it, that realization that Else is homeless and that she has made a fool of herself by following her is so lovely and lost. Smith did such a great job of describing those lost bits of urban England, it reminded me of wandering in Norwich in my year abroad after dark to borrow a bicycle. Totally alienating and strange and I didn’t feel safe at all, but still I got glimpses through windows into people’s lives, so safe and warm compared to where I was walking. This sequence was good reminder that it’s those esoteric moments of life, which, captured fully, can resonate more than the most recognizable ones.
Again, this book was totally right for what I’m doing at this exact moment on my novel. Penny’s section has also inspired some thoughts toward short stories; distant simmerings, but I hope they will emerge on their own.