Monday, 2 November 2015

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I ended up reading this book twice. The first time, it was going to be a joint read with my sister, and I jumped the gun on reading it. But the joint part didn't really work out, and then by the time I was finally ready to sit down and write a review, it had been long enough that I decided to go back and read it again. (It helps that it's quite a short book, and that didn't feel like a daunting task.)

Then I started a new job last week, and it's been crazy busy getting used to that, so no book reviews at all got written. We'll see if we can change that from now on, because I'm backed up, not that I've gotten a lot of reading done. Good thing the early part of the year for me was so much reading.

My first reaction to the book is largely a problem of the marketing and inside cover. They both talk about the "Dept. of Speculation" referring to letters the main character (unnamed) and her husband sent to each other early in their relationship, putting that as the return address. This a) led me to believe the book was going to be from both points of view, and b) spend far too much brain time trying to figure out how that figured in. If they'd just not tried to explain the title on the inside blurb, and let me stumble across that piece of information the one time it comes up in the book, I wouldn't have spent time looking for things that never arose.

This is a problem, the looking for meaning, when the writing is so very impressionistic. I wish I'd known less, so I could just have sunk inside the prose that is there, instead of looking for the prose that was not. It's a book about marriage, and having a child, and surviving an affair, and wanting to make art through all of that, be an "art monster" who puts themself first, but which the demands of being a wife and mother and teacher tend to preclude.

Very little of this, however, is put in front of you easily. There are silences and elisions, musings on hurts not completely elucidated, leaving the reader to put together the thoughts of this woman and figure out what is going on. (Most of it becomes quite clear, but I enjoyed the way the book looped around and around the issues, the way it feels like your brain might when things are too painful to dwell on for long.)

There's a detachment about it, as the narrator experiences the events. (Is it a diary? Her thoughts? A novel-in-progress based on her life?) Having her be unnamed blurs the lines between narrator and author. There were a few phrases in particular in the start of the book, about marriage, that resonated strongly with me.

It's not an emotional read, though, or at least it wasn't for me. There's a detachment that I find very interesting, but not the kind of prose that reaches in and tears out my guts. She wants to stay, in some ways, separate from the stressful events in her life, and I think that works, and changes my engagement with the novel in interesting ways.

I don't know that this is a book I'd been running out and telling everyone to read, but it's one, if I was talking to the right person, I might pause, think about it, and then recommend.

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