Narrator Madeline, called Linda at school, recalls her childhood in the backwoods of northern Minnesota, where her lapsed hippie parents scrape a living after the failure of their commune. A teenage loner with no real friends, she lives in a kind of emotional vacuum between her strong, silent father “who always made it seem a great kindness… not to ask too many questions” and self-absorbed, insensitive mother with her half-finished projects, of which Linda is one. Expected to undertake adult tasks from an early age – chopping wood, feeding and exercising the dogs, walking miles in the dark after school to fetch drain unblocker – yet also given total freedom to roam, Linda observes people with the same forensic eye she applies to the natural world, but is often unable to interact “normally”, to the point of seeming autistic. She tends to become obsessed with other “outsiders”, like teacher with a shady past, Mr Grierson, who may have seduced pliant Lily, mocked for being part-Indian, which she never denies.
When the Gardners occupy a lakeside house in the area, Linda is paid to childmind their precocious four-year-old son Paul, and is surprised by the unfamiliar sensation of bonding with the little boy, also perhaps developing a crush on his mother Patra, who seems at times like an older sister. Linda notices Patra’s moments of “breathtaking tenderness” for her son, only to neglect him in her abject need to please dominant husband Leo. He turns out to be a third generation Christian Scientist which sits oddly with his profession as an academic astronomer. Members of this religion will not be pleased with the portrayal of their beliefs in this book, as troubling signs of something amiss in the Gardner family gradually builds up to a tragedy in which Linda is implicated.
This highly original, quirky novel is marked by a string of striking descriptions which enable one to visualise or sense situations even if entirely outside one’s experience: the changing colours in the sky above a lake as the night draws in; the behaviour of dogs; the pleasure of watching a child’s absorption in doing a jigsaw; a mother’s fruitless efforts to induce her teenage daughter to talk to her.
There are sharp insights, and bitter ironies as in the case of Mr Grierson who may have been punished for actions he only thought of committing – a twist of the Christian Scientist belief that “it’s not what you do but what you think that matters”.
Yet the critical incident, which arguably haunts and defines the rest of Linda’s life, remains unclear in some key respects and insufficiently explored. This may be deliberate since the author is more interested in capturing an individual’s thought processes together with the fragmented, even inaccurate impressions she may draw from a situation.
What may seem like a weakness in what I found to be the artificial, unconvincing conversations involving Leo and later Linda’s lover Rom may also be intentional, in that Linda either does not understand what the former is saying or resents the latter’s attempt to pin her down.
Perhaps a novel such as this can only have an ambiguous ending, but I was somewhat disappointed by what seemed a creative writer’s damp squib of a final twist which provides a somewhat weak conclusion. It left me with a sense of sadness over a life which seems needlessly blighted, since Linda is portrayed for much of the book as a bright, resilient person with a wry take on the world.
Overall, deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate it fully.