BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
“Shortness of breath?” the doctor had asked her. “Muscle tension? Mental distraction?”
She looked down at her hands and nodded. Yes, to each of those things. Hearing them described so simply should have robbed them of their power, she thought; they were only words. But instead, she felt as if she should defend them. No, she would say. It’s so much more. They’re so much bigger than just those words.
Eleanor is the story of two women with the same name, related but a generation apart.
Eleanor, the first, is a young wife and mother of one, and she’s just found out she’s pregnant.
Sometimes Eleanor swore her life was being written by someone else’s hand. Certainly it wasn’t Eleanor’s. Maybe Hob’s. Maybe Agnes’s, even – she’d asked not six weeks earlier for a little brother or sister.
“And we can call her Patricia,” Agnes had pronounced. “Or Patrick!”
She’s not happy, she feels anxious, unsettled, trapped, and she longs for the open water.
She’s grateful that preparations for the new baby seem to have distracted Hob and Agnes. She worries that those terrible, guilty thoughts are readable on her face. Her attacks come all the time now, but she finds quiet, dark places – such as the closet floor, behind Hob’s hanging shirts and sweaters – and cries there, where nobody can see her.
Then, one day she goes for a swim in the ocean and doesn’t come back.
Thirty years later, the second Eleanor in our tale is fourteen and is her mother’s sole caregiver. Dealing poorly with the loss of a daughter, Agnes’ alcohol-fueled abuse has become commonplace, and now Eleanor is the only one there for her. The only one to make sure her mother eats, to cover her when she inevitably passes out in her recliner, to dispose of the countless empty alcohol bottles, to be on the receiving end of her mother’s hate because she’s not her sister.
“Run and hide!” her mother crows after her. “Hide from what you did!”
Eleanor is trembling as she pushes the attic door closed. She thinks that she will never have a daughter. Mothers and daughters are horrible, horrible to each other.
Then something starts happening to her. Every so often, when she passes through a doorway, she finds herself somewhere… other.
The tiny hairs on her arms and neck lift up. There is a sharp smell; the air sizzles. Before she has a moment to truly consider any of this, she steps through the doorway – is, frankly, almost yanked through it – and then Eleanor is no longer in the cafeteria, no longer in her high school, no longer even in Oregon at all.
She’s absent from our world for longer and longer periods of time, and sometimes re-enters with such force that people are beginning to suspect her parents are harming her.
The pink deepens into a severe, continent-shaped blotch of purples and blues. The discoloration spreads over most of her back. Only the edge of her left side is unmarked. At the low center of her back, the blotch is almost black. To Eleanor it looks as if some poisonous tar has been injected just beneath her skin.
Where does she go when she disappears, what’s behind it, and most importantly, how long until one of these trips does more than just hurt? How long until she winds up lost for good… or dead?
Eleanor is an incredibly hard book to classify. It explores the various ways in which people deal with uncertainty and loss – alcoholism, denial, blame – and throws a fair helping of “other” into the mix. As such, it is neither a book for readers of speculative fiction or general fiction alone, but instead transcends both.
There was only Esmerelda, who would slip out of her own bed and climb into Eleanor’s and whisper, “Backs,” which was Eleanor’s cue to turn over. Esme would turn the opposite way, and the twins would scoot together until their backs touched. Eleanor would say, “What’s wrong?” and Esmerelda, facing the dark but warmed by her sister, would say “I broke the lamp in the attic,” and then Eleanor would confess something.
At its heart, Eleanor is an engaging, beautiful work of speculative literature, and I would recommend it for the writing alone. But beyond that, this is a story that feels so incredibly human, while at the same time exploring beyond any borders that we, mere humans, are able to fathom.
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