[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Phoebe, a woman in her thirties, is having the first serious relationship of her life. She comes from a rough upbringing and sometimes feels out of place in Sam’s wholesome world, amid his organic diet, his intellectual friends, and his seemingly perfect mother. But an old wound festers at the heart of Sam’s family: his sister Lisa disappeared when she was twelve. Family legend holds that she was spirited away by the fairies. Sam’s a rational man, though, and he insists that she was taken by an ordinary predator. As Don’t Breathe a Word begins, Phoebe and Sam receive a phone call that implies Lisa is still alive and wants to communicate with them.
Don’t Breathe a Word alternates between two points of view: Phoebe’s, as she and Sam delve into the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance and possible return; and Lisa’s, fifteen years earlier, in the last few weeks before she vanished. Lisa is a girl just on the cusp of adolescence, young enough to sing clapping rhymes and old enough to realize the adults in her family are keeping secrets. The novel’s many layers of illusions, lies, and fairy tales unfold for Phoebe, Lisa, and the reader all at the same time.
Jennifer McMahon incorporates a great deal of the traditional folklore about fairies. The story builds up to Midsummer, a date often associated with these beings. They’ve been said to enjoy offerings of childish comfort foods such as sweets and milk; as Phoebe’s fragile happiness begins to fall apart, she takes solace in cake and Hamburger Helper. Fairies are most powerful during liminal times, or liminal periods in humans’ lives; the pubescent Lisa is at a liminal point, and so is Phoebe (though she doesn’t know it yet). McMahon obviously did a ton of homework and wove it into the story in a way that flows naturally.
The book will have you thinking about how we tend to mythologize, to tell stories that help us make sense of traumatic experiences. How many of the old, scary fairy legends were actually built around catastrophic mental illness, sexual abuse, or premature death? Conversely, if fairies appeared in our own cynical time, what kinds of tales would we tell to rationalize them?
Is Don’t Breathe a Word a story about human evil dressed up as a story about fairies, or is it a story about fairies dressed up as a story about human evil? As you read, you’ll vacillate several times between the two explanations. The most significant answer McMahon seems to offer is this: either way, it’s chilling and heartbreaking.
At the same time as the tragic events tug at your emotions, the book’s layered plot will give your brain a workout. This is the kind of book that you finish and then want to start right back over at the beginning to see what new details you can catch on the reread. The ending is of the ambiguous type that is both frustrating and haunting. I wished for more certainty – but at the same time, I recognized that a more concrete ending wouldn’t stick with me as long. McMahon leaves enough questions to keep the reader thinking long after finishing the book.
I read Don’t Breathe a Word in two days, unable to put it down. It’s my favorite book of 2011 so far, and one of the most faithful evocations of the old, deadly tales of the fairies.