The reader gets a definite sense of the narrator's age in Jenny Offill's debut novel, LAST THINGS. She views everything she relates to us openly and unflinchingly, as a child would do -- and the things she doesn't completely understand are naturally colored with the myths and stories told to her by her increasingly deranged mother, combined with extrapolations produced by her own imagination.
Grace's parents are incredibly mismatched. Her father is a complete realist, grounded in science and fact. He works as a teacher in the small Vermont town in which they live, until his objections to a prayer circle held within earshot of his office draw the disfavor of the administration. At one point, we are told that he proposed to her mother with the words 'You're the only woman I've met that will never bore me'. That's certainly proven to be true. Her mother -- who is an ornithologist working at a nearby raptor center -- is given to spouting native myths and beliefs from the far corners of the earth, sometimes obviously inventing stories on the spot to validate her increasingly odd actions. She sometimes speaks and writes in a language invented for her by her father, and attempts to teach it to Grace. When her pronouncements and beliefs begin to seep into her daughter's behavior at school, she vows to home-school young Grace, and the girl is pulled further into her mother's fantasy world.
Children usually remember events clearly but in a spotty way -- when speaking of memories, they tend to bounce from one to the next, not concerned (as an adult narrator might be) with beginnings and endings, with smoothing out the rough edges of memory. They remember the parts that have the greatest emotional effect on them, either directly or obliquely. Offill has reproduced this tendency by giving her young storyteller an accurate voice -- it's not a stretch for us to imagine that we're listening to the story through Grace's own words. That being said, the writing is very polished and effective -- as the book spirals through scene after scene to its climax, the effect is very much like a wild dream that comes with the fever of an illness. It's a powerful current that draws the reader in, making the book difficult to put down.
It's an interesting ride -- but there's an aching sadness left at the thought of what the shenanigans of Grace's parents are doing to her, to what sort of long-term effects they might have on the impressionable psyche of an 8-year-old girl. It makes me wonder if the two of them gave any thought to how they would raise a child once they had one. Her mother is hopeless, and her father, although he's a bit more grounded in reality, seems completely clueless in relating to his daughter. I can't imagine her emerging from this ordeal without having a fairly skewed view of the world.
It's an odd little book -- but very skillfully written, interesting and entertaining. Sometimes it's pretty scary to look as an adult through the eyes of a child -- it makes for a compelling read.