Whispers Through a Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

Miriam Delaney hasn’t left the house for three years, Not after what she did. At the beginning of the novel, she tosses a coin. Heads, she re-enters the world. Three heads thrown later, she comes up with a plan.

  1. Do something I am afraid of. Apparently this builds confidence (have yet to see evidence of this – will be an interesting experiment)
  2. Spend next few days clearing out house – get rid of mother’s things
  3. Leave house next week

She begins by writing a list of things she is afraid of and gets to tackling number thirteen: Naked cleaning.

How scary can it be?

Answer: that depends on your childhood.

It depends on whether, at the age of eight, you found your mother sweeping the floor of the school corridor wearing nothing but a pair of trainer socks. (Had she planned to go for a run and slipped into insanity seconds after putting on her socks? Can madness descend that quickly, like thunder, like a storm?)[…]What made the situation worse, even harder for Miriam to comprehend, was the fact that her mother didn’t even work as a cleaner.

As Miriam builds up to leaving the house the events of the past which haunt her – many of which are to do with her mother – and how she’s managed for the three years in which she hasn’t left the house are slowly revealed.

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Whispers Through a Megaphone isn’t just Miriam’s story though, it’s also that of Ralph Swoon and his wife, Sadie. We meet Ralph ensconced in a cabin in the woods with a cat named Treacle.

Feline logic told her that he had dragged himself here to die. Why else would he have turned up in the woods at 11.30p.m. on 4th August with no bag, no possessions, just a wallet, a phone and a guitar.

But the cat was wrong.

He hadn’t come here to die.

Ralph’s a psychotherapist who knows ‘less about his own desires these days than his clients knew about theirs’. He’s been particularly confused since he glimpsed his first love, Julie Parsley, in the local B&Q and promptly walked into a giant garden gnome. Having had their now sixteen-year-old twin boys when he and Sadie were twenty, their relationship’s changed somewhat:

They were fine, they were happy, he could lose her any moment. This was the wordless core of their relationship, known and unknown. Sixteen years later they argued all the time and the sight of her Mini pulling into the driveway, its back seat covered with newspapers and unopened poetry anthologies, had begun to make him queasy.

As Ralph tries to figure out what he wants, Sadie begins to question a decision she made as a student and starts to explore alternatives to her current lifestyle.

Inevitably, Ralph and Miriam meet midway through the story at which point, they tentatively try to help each other through their respective periods of hurt and confusion.

Whispers Through a Megaphone explores the power the past holds over the present, particularly with regards to relationships – romantic and familial. It considers decisions made by other people, particularly Miriam’s mother, which have long resounding impacts on those around them and decisions the protagonists made themselves which, years later, they’re starting to consider the impact of and whether the alternative is now a better option.

The style and tone of the novel reminded me of two books from early 2015: Lost & Found by Brooke Davis and Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. However, I preferred Whispers Through a Megaphone due to the very dark undertone which comes to the surface in pockets throughout the book.

I found the novel, as a whole, hugely enjoyable. There are moments I would’ve liked to have seen questioned or explored further, such as the early revelation that the headmaster who took Miriam’s naked mother home had sex with her on the kitchen table and then began an affair with her. Although there were consequences for this later on, his taking advantage of a woman with mental health problems wasn’t raised. However, I was largely engrossed by the book. I thought the structure – as it moved between Miriam and Ralph’s stories – and the pace at which secrets and choices were revealed were well timed. The characters were interesting: I was particularly fascinated by Sadie who (bar Miriam’s mother) is the least likeable but the most rounded of the cast. Whispers Through a Megaphone is an offbeat, entertaining read.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

 

Lost & Found – Brooke Davis

Millie’s dog, Rambo, was her Very First Dead Thing. She found him by the side of the road on a morning when the sky seemed to be falling, fog circling his broken shape like a ghost.

He isn’t seven-year-old Millie Bird’s last dead thing though as the old man crossing the road is next, followed by twenty-five other ‘Dead Things’ that Millie records in a book. Number twenty-eight is her dad.

After her dad’s death, Millie’s mum abandons her in a department store and leaves. Millie spends three days there, making signs that read ‘In here Mum’ and placing them in key spots, before she’s seen by security and social services are called. Millie makes a run for it with the help of the man she meets on her second day there, Karl the Touch Typist.

Karl’s mother was a typist, Karl was a typist and his wife Evie was a typist. Karl taps on whatever surface is available, typing out everything he says. It’s something he’s done since his wedding night when he taps out ‘I am so glad to meet you, Evie’ on her wedding dress and ‘I am here, Evie, across her collarbone’.

In their life together, Karl and Evie didn’t go anywhere, ever. They were each other’s foreign countries.
Only unhappy people leave home, Evie declared.
And we don’t need to leave, he said, typing on her forearm.
They lived such a small life. Trees and flowers and ocean and neighbors. They never scaled mountains, or braved rapids, or went on telly. They never ate strange animals in Asian countries. They never starved themselves or set themselves on fire for the greater good. They never delivered a rousing speech, sang in a musical, or fought in a boxing ring. Their names wouldn’t be in textbooks for children, their faces wouldn’t be on banknotes. They would not get their own statue. And when they died, their names would disappear like their last breath, a curiosity for cemetery-goers and nothing more.

Karl’s recently bereaved and after a short stint living with his son and daughter-in-law, they place him in a nursing home. Millie meets Karl when he decides he’s had enough of the home and the lack of contact with life and walks out.

The third character in the novel is Agatha Pantha. We’re introduced to Agatha by way of her wedding night:

As she lay there, waiting for his return, it was not surprise, shock, or even rage that she felt; it was disappointment. Disappointment that having a man flounder about on top of her was the best humankind could come up with.

She remembered learning that all men had these monstrosities dangling between their legs. She couldn’t look at a man for a number of months afterward. Just the knowledge that there were so many hidden penises around unnerved her. She didn’t know how other women could live in a world like this. She felt surrounded, trapped.

Agatha’s marriage was not a happy one and neither has her life been since her husband, Ron, died. She’s spent the last seven years in the house talking to no one but herself and following a very strict, timed routine. However, on the day Millie runs away from the department store, she hides behind Agatha’s fence to avoid the police and then returns to ask for Agatha’s help. Agatha’s seen Millie’s mother leave and when Millie continues to stare at her from the house she lived in with her family across the road, Agatha leaves the house to talk to her.

The weeds around her front door are at head height, and they greet her like a group of malnourished people. You’re not getting anything from me! she yells, swinging her elbows at them as she storms past. She stands at her front gate and faces the street. Too many cracks in the footpath! She yells. I’m crossing the road now! Hedge is too fancy! Look out, car, I’m not stopping for you! This is not that hard at all! It’s just walking after all! I’ve done it a million times! As long as I have legs that can walk, I should probably use them!

Within three days, Millie and Agatha, closely followed by Karl and Manny the mannequin, are on a road trip to Melbourne to try and find Millie’s mum.

Lost & Found considers love and grief and how the two affect people, and friendships and relationships and what makes them work, or fall apart. Like Tirra Lirra by the River and Etta and Otto and Russell and James, both of which I reviewed earlier this week, it has elderly protagonists; part of the joy of the book is witnessing their, largely antagonistic, behaviour to each other when they’re forced to spend time together for Millie’s sake.

The most wonderful thing in the book for me was Agatha. She’s possibly one of my favourite ever characters. She’s spiky and stubborn and regimented and has built up such a barrier around herself but she’s not afraid to judge herself in the same way she judges anything else that crosses her path. And she’s so judgemental! And very shouty. When she leaves the house to visit Millie, she turns and sees her own house and realises it’s the one on the street that children would go out of their way to avoid. It’s a touching moment but also fits nicely with the character she’s created for herself.

The structure of the novel moves in third person between the perspectives of each of the three protagonists. This works well in allowing the reader to witness three different perspectives on loss as well as gaining an insight into what the characters think of each other. In Millie’s chapters we also get ‘a fact about the world millie knows for sure’, highlighting how knowing she is for a seven-year-old.

The proof of the novel came littered with comparisons to best-selling books. Of those mentioned, I would suggest fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would also enjoy Lost & Found.

Thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.