My book club chose this book for our March read after examining the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. We love this particular competition and always try and tackle one or two books on the shortlist – we are getting ahead of ourselves this year! I am ashamed to say that I have still not read last year’s winner, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (we chose others from the shortlist), but that will have to wait for another time.
Books from literary competitions are not always considered particularly accessible, but this novel feels like a real ‘reader’s book’, something the Women’s Prize does particularly well. It is darkly comic, wonderfully written and with a quirky storyline that will lift you without being patronising, and which does not opt for the easy or predictable plot solutions.
Penny Rush is a thirty-something who has reached a difficult stage in her life. She has just separated from her husband Sherman, who seems to have experienced a premature mid-life crisis and taken up with another woman. Penny quits her job as a dental nurse, vowing to have a fresh start, and has just a few hundred dollars to her name when a series of family crises beset her. Penny is a lonely soul at this stage. Her beloved mother and stepfather disappeared some years earlier while touring in the Australian outback. Their disappearance has never been explained and their deaths remain unconfirmed. Penny’s sister Margaret now lives in Australia with her football player husband and two children. When Penny’s grandparents suddenly need help to deal with their own problems, only Penny is available to help.
Penny’s eccentric grandmother, former medical doctor (though who retains her license to practice), known as Pincer, gets into trouble with the police when human remains are found in her home. Penny teams up with Pincer’s accountant and friend Burt in an effort to help her. They conspire to clean up Pincer’s chaotic, and dangerously dirty home while she is out and it is the staff of the cleaning company Penny engages who find the bones. Burt is himself an eccentric, though it turns out, also a very sick one. He drives a highly customised and very ancient van which he calls ‘the dog of the north’. When Burt is admitted to hospital, he lends Penny ‘the dog’ which she needs to deal with the many issues that are piling up at her door.
Penny’s grandfather, Arlo, Pincer’s ex-husband, lives with his ghastly second wife Doris, but their marriage is bitter and tumultuous. As Arlo is ageing and his need for support is growing, Doris tells Penny in no uncertain terms that she wants her to get him out of the house and into a retirement facility. With Arlo’s agreement she does this. Penny and Arlo share a deep grief about the disappearance of Penny’s parents. Once out of Doris’s clutches, Arlo decides that he wants to make one final effort to discover what happened to his daughter and son-in-law, and he persuades her to accompany him to Australia. Penny becomes very sick on the trip, having contracted a dangerous infection when Pincer, angered by what she saw as Penny and Burt’s interference, stabbed her with a brooch.
The above is just a snapshot of the events of the book but I hope it gives a flavour of the journey that the novel takes you on. There are also many offshoots to the main storyline: when Burt is sick, his brother Dale visits him from Santa Barbara. Dale represents the calm and stable presence in the chaos of the situation in which Penny finds herself. She is drawn to him, despite his not being as colourful as many of the people she is used to and their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the novel. In the background there is also Gaspard, Penny’s biological father whom she was forced to remain in contact with throughout her childhood, but a man she now tries to avoid.
The novel is about a life that is constantly being buffeted between chaos and order. Penny wants order and calm (what her lost parents represent) but she somehow finds herself being pulled back into disorder, precariousness and unpredictability. Will she ever be able to assert herself and find the peace that she craves?
I loved this book. The characters are all brilliantly realised and the events, though extreme, are entirely believable. When you start the novel you enter a world where weird things, bad luck and chance encounters just happen. It is well-written and the pace is good. I listened to this on audio and the reading by Katherine Littrell was excellent.