"this is the fear, this is the dread
these are the contents of my head..."
I've always loved that line from Annie Lennox's Why.
This book is about the contents of two characters' heads: Paloma, the 12-yr old suicidal prodigy, and Renée, the 50-something cat-lady concierge. Be careful with these characters, and by that I mean: take care of them, for they are fragile, sad souls in need of understanding and in need, moreover, of someone--anyone--to see through their facades and see them for who they really are. And don't we all need that?
And be careful of them: for they will, despite their attempts to push you away with their overly intellectual babbling, their deliberate hiding, their desperate and unconscious need to repress their true natures to protect themselves from long-buried pain or more recent and ongoing torment, sneak up on you, seize your heart and send you reeling at the depth of what they reveal about being human, about being loved, about being validated, about being.
Their torment is simply the day-to-day experience of living when you are of a certain sensibility: when you think deeply, feel deeply, experience the full pain of injustice and hypocrisy around you and--even worse for these two trapped into the stereotypes imposed on them by their class and time and place--when you are disenfranchised, "out of time" and "out of place".
This is the story of two misfits who find comfort, eventually, gratefully, mercifully, in themselves and in others. Who reconcile their heads with their hearts, and find a way of being in the world that is bearable for them. This occurs through the intervention of a third character, Kakuro Ozu, who--while he has his own story, his own pain, his own needs--is somewhat secondary to the story.
Nothing happens in this novel, and yet two lives open up, blossom like a camellia (<-- simile chosen intentionally, important symbol), and then...
Well, I will leave it to you to find out. Please do.
The only way you will be disappointed by this book, I think, is if you allow the two protagonists to mislead you. If you see their endless philosophizing and pretense as anything other than what it is: a desperate need to cover up what can only be a similarly-deep and coherent heartache.
The ending is an absolute triumph, for the characters and for the reader. Which is not to say that it is a happy or unambiguous one. But it will send you spinning, it is so very unexpected, so very poignant. I burst into tears. Literally. (how many reviews have I written lately where I mention myself crying. I'm not a suck, really.)
Does it pull the strands of Renée's story together a little too neatly? Part of me thought so, but that was my head talking, not my heart. Despite everything you are reading, listen to your heart in this story, not to your head--your head, in isolation, will lead you astray and strip from you the richness of the story unfolding (a theme, and--for this fable--a moral, yes indeed).
Did I write once here that I hate fables? I believe I did. The Elegance of the Hedgehog
(and what a fabulous title--it's what made me pick this up in the first place), along with Timothy Findley's Not Wanted On The Voyage
are exceptions to the rule.
A few notes: Renée's first-person narration takes a surreal turn at the end--does it work? It pulled me out of the story a bit, although I quickly overcame it. I'd appreciate hearing others' viewpoints on that. Also, a very good grounding in Tolstoy's War and Peace
, which shamefully I do not have, likely adds a layer to the meaning. My view is that it is not important to know Kant or the phenomenologists as well--this is part of Renée's charade, meant to be seen through. Agree?
Final note: the social satire is as delicious as the plum jam Renée uses to test the strength of a philosophical argument. I particularly enjoyed the ridicule of psychoanalysis, but then I am evil that way. hehe
Seriously recommended. On my "lonely hearts club" shelf. An unequivocal 5 stars from me.