The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier takes place in the summer that followed 9/11, a time of great social fragility when perspectives on risk and safety were warped by the sheer weight of pressure put upon them. The atmosphere of this time, one in which the holding together of daily life was so tense and delicate that any false move seemed to signal an implosion, is brilliantly realised in this novel, and intrinsic to its events.
Kate Spenser is still grieving the loss of her good friend, Elizabeth, killed in a plane crash shortly before the twin towers tragedy, when she learns she has been left a strange bequest in her will. Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth was a keen journal writer, and she has left a trunk of journals dating back to her childhood to Kate, ‘because she’s fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them’. Knowing what should be done becomes suddenly more complex when Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, indicates his severe displeasure about the bequest; he’s read the end of her final journal in which Elizabeth talks excitedly about travelling to see a man named Michael. Having put two and two together to make five, he is wounded in his pride at the thought of an outsider learning the intimate story of his marriage, particularly if it’s one that humiliates him.
But in fact, Kate starts to learn far more about her friend than she ever imagined she would. She has taken the trunk on a family holiday to Great Rock Island, and every evening once her young children are in bed, she is drawn hypnotically back to the journals. The Elizabeth she thought she knew was a devoted wife and mother, a homebody with an obvious knack for dealing with children, a quiet, reserved and laid-back woman who displayed no regrets. Yet all the time, underneath the façade, Elizabeth has been suffering and frustrated, forced to abandon a cherished career as an artist and grappling still with an unhappy past that refuses to be forgotten.
While she reads with increasing discomfort at her own blindness, Kate realises she needs to put her own house in order. The journals have arrived at a time in her life when her marriage is shaky and her own future uncertain. In the wake of 9/11, Kate knows she’s lost touch with her sensible self and menace seems to stalk her little family, nameless dread has become part of the fabric of her life. Elizabeth’s story forces Kate to assess the real meaning of honesty with the ones she loves, and how hiding the truth may not be an act of selfless bravery, but a cowardly act of dissimulation that leaves others out in the cold.
This was a family story with an emotionally intelligent framework and I very much appreciated it, particularly the way it dug deep into the culture of pretending that threatens to engulf us all in a wave of imperfect positive thinking. I’ve written elsewhere about this; my own slow coming-to-understanding that hiding negative emotions is a good way to go quietly crazy. And we live in a culture that is appalling at risk assessment, and goodness only knows we ought to address that problem before it completely destroys ordinary, everyday peace of mind. We live in a world that thrusts more and more sensationalised problems down our throats every day, while insisting that we put on happy faces and think optimistically. Surely the next big catastrophe will arise out of precisely that foolish contradiction.
But I also wished I knew what Dark Puss would think of this book, as it also operates within a very clearly gendered universe, something I think is quite realistic when parents are raising small children. Take for instance this passage about the widower, Dave:
In the beginning there’d been a rush to charity, everyone wanting to take the kids, a thinly veiled assumption that it was too much for a father to care for his three children alone. He’d told Kate that if he was seen in the grocery store struggling through the shopping with the kids, there would be babysitting offers and lasagna on his doorstep by dusk. No matter that Elizabeth had done this, all the time. Only a few months after Elizabeth’s death, Brittain had called Kate in Washington to say that she’d seen Dave doing yard work with the kids in the driveway, and that maybe the playgroup could pull together a fund-raiser for a contract with a landscaping service? It had been offered and declined, offered and decline, until finally he asked Kate to tell them no thanks, really. What they would never understand was that all he wanted was to mow his own damn lawn with no one watching, or offering to do it for him, or bringing a meal over afterwards as a condolence for his having to mow a lawn without a wife to watch his kids.’
The only part of this rich and intriguing novel that perplexed me was the attitude of Kate’s husband, Chris, who deeply resents the time and attention Kate gives to the journals. It only makes sense in a traditionally gendered world in which wives are devoted to their families and perform that devotion flawlessly. In a month of reading books about women’s evolving place in the world, it’s a distressing thought that this astute novel depicts a culture in which wives and mothers are still so tightly bound to domesticity. Overall this was an impressive novel – not quite literature, more a literary beach read. I’d definitely look out for the author’s next book.