One of the things that I always enjoy about any prize longlist is that invariably it introduces me to a lot of books that I have either never heard of you have only seen and pondered on. Rachel Elliott’s debut Whispers Through A Megaphone is a book that I saw promoted quite a lot in Foyles earlier in the year and almost bought (because when a hardback is half price you want to buy it regardless) and then again had a mental dalliance with when my boss was reading it and raving about it. Then the Baileys longlist popped it straight into my reading path…
Whispers Through A Megaphone is initially a tale of two halves and two people. First we encounter Miriam Delaney, a thirty-five year old woman who has not left her house for three years. Well she hasn’t gone further than a few feet of it, thanks to the help of her best friend, Fenella who does her shopping, and her neighbour, Boo who takes her bins down the drive and onto the street. That really is the interaction at its maximum between Miriam and the outside world. But why?
It’s three years today since Miriam last stepped out of this house.
No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But to step out into the street? No chance. Risk collision and a potentially catastrophic exchange with a stranger? You must be joking. Not after what happened. Not after what she did. Inside the cutesy slipper-heads of two West Highland terriers, her feet have paced the rooms of 7 Beckford Gardens, a three bed semi with a white cuckoo clock, brown and orange carpets, a life size cut out of Neil Armstrong.
That ‘why’ becomes the main focus point of Miriam’s story and as we read on we learn that her mother might have been a little bit crazy, well she did get caught cleaning the school by the Headmaster in nothing but socks and shoes which then starts a long affair, yet Elliott cleverly and teasingly lets us know that there is much more going on her as we discover letters to a Grandmother and a more recent incident for which Miriam feels much shame and fear. This becomes in many ways the main propulsion of the book, or at least it did for me. But I mentioned there is initially another main character and that is Ralph Swoon, a happily married part time psychiatrist and father of two.
Blow me. He almost Googled this phrase once, to discover its origins, but decided against it when he imagined the kind of sites that might pop up. He tried not to utter these words, especially when working with female clients, but saying blow me was something he inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom. Frank Swoon had been famous for his buttocks. Women wolf-whistled as he walked down the street. “Oh you do make me swoon, Mr Swoon, Just look at those cheeks.” It was the kind of compliment a man would have been slapped for.
Yet something is bubbling away underneath his home life too, something which we soon discover leads him to simply walking out on his family, mainly after a fight with his wife Sadie, and going and living in a hut in the woods, just off the local park. You can probably guess what is coming, Miriam and Ralph are going to meet, the question is are their timelines the same and if so might these two strangers help each other or, as I thought because I am quite dark, could their meeting be the awful event in Miriams recent past. You will of course have to read the book to find out, I know I am a rotter doing that to you aren’t I?
What I can say as the book goes on is that I interestingly found that whilst the novel is herding you into believing that Ralph is the second of the main characters I think Rachel Elliott’s focus was more firmly on his wife Sadie who really becomes the catalyst of Ralph leaving after which point I think she gets a lot more airtime, or wordage to be correct, than Ralph as we discover the secret that she has been keeping from herself and everyone else for quite some time. As her story gains momentum, Ralphs lessen though the effects upon him become stronger. I know that is terribly vague but once you have read the book you will see what I mean. This caused me a couple of slight problems with the book.
Joe squeezed Stanley’s bottom, which made his voice rise at the end of the sentence. His mother didn’t notice. She probably wouldn’t notice if the high note turned into a whole song from Annie, with Stanley singing as loudly as he could about the sun coming out tomorrow. She wouldn’t notice if Joe gave him a blow job right there in the middle of the kitchen. She was tweeting, pouring Prosecco, muttering about whether she had bought enough sausages. His mother the great multitasker, always in her own world, always oblivious.
I wouldn’t describe Sadie as oblivious, I would describe her as completely and utterly self centred. As we are treated to her Twitter feed/life where she tries to create a persona of who she aspires to be, one that is a bit more interesting, a bit more irreverent. This worked and didn’t work for me, personally I loathe tweets in books as a rule almost as much as talking horses, yet at the same time we see there is a huge insecurity with her. The only issue with this is that occasionally Sadie is either the butt of other characters jokes, boringly dislikeable at moments or she becomes rather overdramatized and farcical, by the end I was a little bit frustrated with her overzealous storyline and Ralph’s slightly ineffectual one. Not that it ever got so bad I wanted to skip their sections, it just seemed a bit too monster and victim, in fact some of the funniest moments of the novel centre around Sadie. And boy is this book funny.
What I really loved about Rachel Elliott’s writing was her eye for the detail of people’s mannerisms. There were probably a paragraph or two every ten or so pages where I would cackle loudly, and was grateful I spent a day (I wanted to devour it) when I was feeling a bit under the weather on the sofa with it as it cheered me up and saved me the embarrassment of openly giggling to myself on public transport. There are some truly gorgeous set pieces of mini stories within the main one that show just how ridiculous we can all be, especially when we are wrapped up in our on dramas. Elliott beautifully catches these moments and it brings her characters fully to life.
It was these moments that made Ralph and Sadie’s domestic strife so utterly readable. I do have to say though that Whispers Through A Megaphone is both in practice and literally a book of two halves. For me they were great writing but the part of the novel I will remember the most, and indeed the key to it all, is Miriam and indeed her story, as I mentioned that propels you to read more and more and more. It is also the part of the book that I connected with the most and actually wanted much, much more of her story and her mother Frances, especially when everything unravels and is revealed towards the end in an incredibly powerful and shattering chapter you probably won’t see coming. Whispers Through A Megaphone is an enjoyable, intriguing, witty and human debut novel and I am very much looking forward to what Rachel Elliott does next.