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Fiction Review: Dept. of Speculation

Thursday, February 9, 2017 17:24
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Book By Book

I finally read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill in January. It was first published in 2014, made many “best of the year” lists, and my husband gave the paperback to me for Christmas last year. Eventually, I make my way through the books on my shelves! This moving novel is the story of a marriage, told in a very unique way.
The unnamed narrator writes in the first-person at the beginning, in short little sentences and paragraphs that don’t lead logically from one to the next but nevertheless tell a cohesive story from the start of her relationship with her husband through many milestones, joys, and bumps in the road, including some serious problems. She writes as I or we, though later, she refers to him as the husband, to their child as the girl, and to herself as the wife, switching to third-person as if to distance herself from her story, as things begin to get difficult.
It’s a very unusual narrative that jumps between brief descriptions of their life together or their past lives before they met to random facts (she worked as a fact-checker at a science magazine for a while) to quotes. The quotes are from sources as varied as literary greats, self-help books, and people in their life. One of my favorite passages is a quote that any female reader will love:
“Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart…it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.”
This disjointed narrative style is a bit jarring at first and takes some getting used to. Those first few pages are disorienting and a little confusing. However, I soon got into the rhythm of the story. It’s actually quite clever because it is a sort of stream of consciousness, with the narrator recalling single moments of her history with her husband. Isn’t that the way our minds really work? On the very first page, she says:
“Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities.”
After a couple of short chapters, you can easily see the narrative thread in these seemingly random bits. The memories are more or less chronological, beginning with when they first met. Despite their brevity, each little paragraph gives you more information – about the narrator, about her husband, about their marriage – that link together to tell a cohesive story. There is even some suspense here, which is why I didn’t say much about the plot, wondering whether they will be able to work out their problems and whether they will stay together. This is a novel that seems strange at first, but it is compelling, and by the end, you realize what a clever way it is to tell the story of a marriage from the inside.
177 pages, Vintage Contemporaries


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