When Anna’s daughter, Lena, was born, Anna started hearing voices. They weren’t telling her anything in particular or even necessarily speaking to her. It was just ambient noise that no one else seemed to be able to hear. And when Lena started talking, the voices stopped.
Six years later, the voices long since gone, Anna is on the run. Her husband, Ned, has become increasingly distant, cold, and unfaithful, and Anna has realized she can no longer live with him. She’s convinced that he won’t accept a divorce because it would mean losing the money she brought to the marriage. He had no actual interest Anna or for Lena. Until now, anyway. After Anna left, Ned decided to run for office in their home state of Alaska, and he needs his loyal wife and adorable daughter at his side for photo ops.
Anna wants nothing to do with Ned or his plans, so she’s made her way to Maine and found a run-down motel that has fully charmed Lena. It’s the off-season, so the motel is quiet. Only gradually does it collect an eclectic group of guests who all form a sort of ad hoc community, looking after Lena and befriending Anna. It’s all a little strange, but Anna prefers this life to anything Ned would give her, and she’s determined to stay hidden from him.
Of course, she can’t stay hidden forever.
This novel by Lydia Millet is a little bit domestic drama, a little bit psychological suspense, and a little bit supernatural horror. These are all genres I’m inclined to enjoy when done well, and I enjoyed this book. I didn’t love it, though. I think I wanted it to get grittier—to commit more fully to the horror of the situation.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of horror. The relationship between Ned and Anna has plenty of horror, but it’s hard to see at first. We’re forced to take Anna’s word for it, and she may be delusional. Anna’s narration makes it clear that Ned doesn’t care about her, but her early fear of him that causes her to run away seems without reason. This is not an uncommon thing in life, and I was inclined to believe Anna about Ned’s dark side, but it was life experience that made me feel that way. There’s not much in the book to support Anna’s fear. Once Ned begins pursuing her, Anna’s feelings are justified by the narrative.
The early ambiguity could be a really effective set-up, but the book doesn’t really seem interested in questioning Anna’s reliability. It’s too bad, too, because had the reader been forced to question Anna’s version of events, Ned’s actions at the end of the book would be even more chilling. There’s a way in which gaslighting causes a person to question reality, and Ned, well, let’s just say he knows how to make his own reality. What if we readers had been allowed to be taken in by him, even if just for a moment?
The supernatural elements do come together at the end, and we’re given something of an explanation for the voices. It’s a bunch of mumbo jumbo about the language of the universe being God or some such thing. I’m not sure it entirely makes sense, and I don’t particularly care about all the details of it. I am interested in the tension between being alone and being together that she addresses. And there are some pleasing turns of phrase in Anna’s final musings on how the world works:
Maybe our gods are as small as we are or as large, varying with the size of our empathy. Maybe when a man’s mind is small his God shrinks to fit.
The thing is, even though I’m not entirely convinced that this book works, I’m interested in it. I think Millett is playing with genre by playing it down, keeping it subtle. It’s not entirely effective, but I like the idea of what she’s doing. And the book held my interest from beginning to end. I think it’ll make for some interesting discussion in the Tournament of Books.