Ten-year-old Rae is alone in the world. Or rather, she would be, were it not for one loyal dog, two nosey neighbours, and a decomposing body in the backyard shed. Rae’s days range in intensity from mundane to macabre, reminding the reader that there is no limit to what a human might endure in the quest for a normal life – or at least, the external appearance of one.
Rae clutches at the remnants of her entropic world with careful self-sufficiency; presumably a symptom of prolonged neglect, stemming from parental mental illness. She steals love in the form of flowers, and attempts to maintain a façade of relative familiarity by not standing out, either at home or at school. Rae ignores the gnawing of shadow-rats by filling her mind with numbers and words. Meanwhile, her pain remains as hidden as the contents of the shed.
As the novel progresses, Rae encounters a unique cast with concealed wounds of their own. Most notable among these are Lettie – the nosey old goat whose porch-sitting constancy is painfully touching – and Oscar, a boy with no friends. Splinter (otherwise known as Splints) is an endearing dog whose playful presence keeps Rae’s world spinning in the absence of gravity.
The author, debut novelist Emily Spurr, paints her characters compassionately, without being tentative in her approach to their pain. Spurr expertly transforms an unlikely cast of loners into a set of profoundly connected individuals, utilising subtext and symbolism to speak where voice alone is insufficient. Like Rae, we can rely on the unspoken words to say what’s missing from the noise.
Rae’s absent parent is projected onto the reader intermittently throughout the narrative. This creates a sense of emotional immediacy, and fosters the illusion of a shared, albeit shattered, existence. Rae’s plucky perspective prevents the story from descending into pity-porn territory – despite the tragic backdrop – and there are moments in which the reader will laugh out loud. However, anyone who has experienced grief is likely to cry at least once before the covers close on this story.
Spurr conveys Rae’s youthful perspective convincingly, without sacrificing the mental depth required to do her premise justice. Rae’s pragmatic coping strategies offer insight into what it’s like to hang on to – and let go of – the things we keep when they’re all we have.
The interplay between mental illness and projected normalcy is subtly confronted in this emotionally precarious journey through suburban Aussie life.
4 stars: ★★★★
A Million Things
By Emily Spurr
Publisher: Text Publishing
Categories: Fiction, Australian
Release Date: 30 March 2021
4 stars: ★★★★