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.

 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James – Emma Hooper

Otto,
The letter began, in blue ink.
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Yours (always),
Etta.

Etta leaves Otto, her husband of several decades with a stack of recipe cards as she sets off to walk to the sea. She is 83 and beginning to forget things so she carries a piece of paper with her which reminds her who she is and who she’s related to.

As she sets out from the house she and Otto live in, she crosses Russell Palmer’s land. Russell is outside, ‘halfway between his house and the end of his land’:

Russell was looking for deer. He was too old, now, to work his own land, the hired crew did that, so in he looked for deer from right before sunrise until an hour or so after and then again from an hour of so before sunset until right after. Sometimes he saw one. Mostly he didn’t.

The story of Etta’s walk is intertwined with both hers and Otto and Russell’s childhood. Etta has a sister Alma but when Etta’s fifteen, Alma becomes pregnant and leaves the family home to live in a convent. Only Etta knows the truth.

Otto is one of fifteen. In order to keep track of all the children, Maria, the eldest, allocates them all a number to which they must respond. Otto is number seven. One day at dinner, he finds another boy in his chair, a boy who is not his brother.

Otto looked at him, then reached across, in front, and took the spoon from him.
That’s mine, he said.
OK, said the boy.
The boy said nothing else and Otto didn’t know what else to say, or do. He stood behind his chair, trying not to drop all his things, trying not to cry. He knew the rules. You didn’t bother parents with child problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal…
Otto’s mother was spooning exactly one ladle of soup into each child’s bowl. One for each, exactly, until, a pause, and
I don’t think you’re Otto.
No, neither do I.
I’m Otto, right here.
Then who is this?
I’m from next door. I’m starving. I’m Russell.
But the Palmers don’t have any children.
They have a nephew. One nephew. Me.
Otto’s mother paused. Clara-2, she said, get another bowl from the cupboard, please.

And so Russell becomes part of the family and Otto and he are like brothers. The pair of them meet Etta when she takes a job as the village school teacher. Russell’s adoration of her is evident from the day of her arrival but it’s not until Otto goes to war and they begin to write to each other that their attraction begins to grow.

The things that impressed me about the novel were: it’s about three old people – hurrah, how often does that happen? (the book I reviewed yesterday and the book I’m reviewing tomorrow also have old people as their focus but you don’t come across it that often); the writing’s fluid and conjures vivid pictures of people, places, incidents; the structure moves easily between present and past; there are some lovely moments of magical realism (I’ve seen it described as ‘gentle magic realism’ which should help if you find that sort of thing off-putting), and if the revelation I had when I finished the novel is correct, it’s a very good allegory. (I’ll not share it with you for fear of spoilers.)

However, I did have a problem with the Etta and Otto falling in love when he’s been her pupil. It says they’re the same age and she’s not his teacher anymore when it happens – he’s at war – but still it felt off to me and if Otto had been the teacher it would have been viewed differently, I think.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also, in one specific instance of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. It will certainly appeal to fans of the former.

 

Thanks to Fig Tree for the review copy.