Friday 30 September 2016

Closely observed novel explores dark side of parenthood and domesticity

Fiction: Dept of Speculation, Jenny Offill, Granta, pbk, 192 pages, €11.99

Beth Jones

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Long wait: There was 15 years between the publication of Offill's novels
Long wait: There was 15 years between the publication of Offill's novels
Dept of Speculation

The narrator of Jenny Offill's novel Dept of Speculation is a writer and teacher in New York whose mind is buckling under the unwelcome upheaval of motherhood and marital strife. Her brain, she says, "tends to speed along… speed, swerve, crash and so on. That is the default state of things".

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Her disjointed, anxious thoughts are layered in this fast-paced, fractured text. Brief, first-person paragraphs, aphorisms and quotations build in tension until, midway through, an entire page is crammed with the words "soscaredsoscaredsoscared soscared…". The perspective shifts to the third person and our protagonist becomes "the wife".

But this wife never wanted to ­marry. She wanted to be "an art monster", obsessed with writing, ­unconcerned with the everyday. ­Instead, after the publication of her first book and birth of her first baby, she finds herself exiled in normal life: fighting bedbugs, unclogging sinks and trying to save a collapsing marriage (while her husband mends wobbly chairs and leaking bathrooms, she reflects wryly on "how unbearable it is that things keep breaking").

Other than several children's books in between, it is 15 years since the publication of Offill's debut novel, Last Things, and in a hint of roman à clef, the narrator of Dept of Speculation has spent years herself struggling with a second book: "Tick tock. Tick tock," a colleague jokes.

Struggling to navigate her path in life (her old art monster plan is a "road not taken", the husband reminds her), her character can be irritatingly self-obsessed: "I secretly hope that I might be a genius"; "I tried to figure out if I felt calmer with a blanket over my head"; "Once I spent $13 on a piece of cheese".

As these diary-like entries build so, too, does the claustrophobia that domesticity can bring: the wife holds her husband's hand at night "while secretly giving [him] the finger"; she likens the smell of her baby's hair to medicine, while despairing of the "doomed, hopelessly unrequited" love she feels for the child; in the supermarket, she pleads with her daughter: "Let me think for a minute. You're not letting me think."

Such observed moments of ­boredom, joy and terror are the ­triumph of this novel, spilling the panic, pain and confusion of ­marriage and motherhood on to the page.

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