Sunday, May 17, 2015

Last Things by Jenny Offill

Mad mother with little girl

Anna, seven year old Grace’s mother, is exhilarating. She works at a bird sanctuary, weeping at the plight of the passenger pigeon. However, she also takes midnight swims with her daughter in the treacherous lake, afterwards driving naked through town. Grace’s father, Jonathan, a chemistry teacher rejecting fantasy and organized religion, is destined to become “Mr. Science”, a character on tv. As Grace becomes increasingly unhinged, bewitching the local16 year old babysitter/mold genius, she and Anna take a road trip (or flee) to New Orleans and beyond, until Anna secretly telephones her father for rescue. Grace, deeply hurt, then disappears for good.

As in Dept. of Speculation, the language and imagery are exquisitely beautiful. A mosaic of compelling snapshots gradually create a plot. The book is constructed of short chunks of scenes and off-kilter facts, such as can be found in an encyclopedia. The reader must draw conclusions, although the somewhat fey lyricisms started to wear a bit in the middle -- is this story going anywhere? Also, the end didn’t quite feel like an end – the little girl didn’t want it to be an end.

There are many delightful conceits here. The secret coded language of Annic. The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. Grace’s detective kit. There’s an underlying thematic symbolic structured (yes perhaps coded) that would make rereading it worthwhile.

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