on June 27th 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
Time is a river, and it flows in a circle.
A beautifully written and heartbreaking novel about a family ripped apart by grief. It also deals with the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. I enjoyed many parts of this story, but by the end, this magical realism tale got a little too fantastic for me.
Esmerelda’s death split their family as finely as an atom, and the resulting detonation blinded them all.
1985: Six-year-old Eleanor’s family is destroyed when her twin sister Esmerelda dies in a tragic car accident. Eleanor is forced to grow up quickly and bear the burden of her parents’ grief. Her father leaves the family home and she is left to take care of her alcoholic mother who can’t bear to look at her. When Eleanor is 14, she begins disappearing from the world and reappearing in places she does not recognize. While she is away, hours, days, and sometimes even years pass. One day Eleanor dives off a cliff and discovers that someone from another realm has been desperate to make contact with her.
(Mea) She is a witness to history, in a sense, observing the membrane’s captured memories like films trapped in amber. Mea has watched so many of these memories that she has ceased to think of them as real events that once occurred in some other realm. A bird who falls from its nest and starves while its mother stares down at it; a planet that forms from the dust of a long-dead star and flowers in the deepest, quietest night, then one day withers away, unnoticed by the universe; a mountain that grows out of deep seismic unrest and rises powerfully into a violet sky and is then immobilized by ice. Each of them beautiful and tragic, each of them far removed from Mea’s home in the darkness.
Eleanor is shelved in the adult section of my library, but I think it would appeal to young adult readers as well. This story has many fantasy elements, including time manipulation and multiple dimensions. We spend some time in the real world, but we also visit mysterious places. Gurley’s evocative prose fully transports you to these strange lands that aren’t constrained by the conventional rules of Earth. Atmospherically, it reminded me of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It also made me think of The Love that Split the World (book), What Dreams May Come, the bookshelf scene in Interstellar and Inception. I originally thought that the fantasy elements were going to be a psychological manifestation of grief, but they are major plot elements.
(Eleanor) She’s too old for these sorts of excursions with her father…one—but Eleanor doesn’t care too much. She knows why she craves these moments. She was robbed of a true childhood, and now, as a teenager, she leaps at every opportunity to regress, even a little. She is her own psychiatrist.
The story alternates between several perspectives. There are actually two Eleanors in this novel. It begins in 1962 with the first Eleanor, Agnes’s mother and the main Eleanor’s grandmother. She is depressed and is wistful for her life before she became a wife and mother. The bulk of book centers around her granddaughter and namesake. Young Eleanor desperately misses her sister and longs for someone to comfort her. Her parents inability to deal with their grief has caused her to grow up too fast. Agnes is Eleanor’s mother. When we first meet her, she is overwhelmed with motherhood. After Esmerelda’s death, grief consumes her. Paul is Eleanor’s father. He was closer with Eleanor than Esmerelda and he carries some guilt for that and for the circumstances surrounding Esmerelda’s death. Mea is a mysterious, formless being who becomes fixated on Eleanor. The Keeper lives alone in a desolate valley. She occasionally sees two strange beasts migrating through her territory. The Keeper’s chapters seem the most removed from Eleanor’s world, but they tie in eventually.
(Agnes) All isn’t lost; I still have Eleanor—but thinking of Eleanor means seeing Eleanor’s smiling green eyes, paired so cleanly with her red hair…and then she can only see Esmerelda’s hair, shreds of it caught in the broken windshield, blood streaked on metal and vinyl, the smell of exhaust and burned rubber, the coppery charge of blood. In these moments, Eleanor becomes a monster.
The novel takes place in Oregon and the author builds the setting well. There is a lot of stormy Northwestern weather. The pages are practically drenched and the images in my mind had a gray tint to them. Gurley also builds a strong sense of dread in the beginning. You know what is coming and you can see all the little actions that contributed to it, but you are powerless to stop it. There are so many moving scenes in this book. One of the most poignant moments was when Eleanor and her father stumble upon a video of Esmerelda performing. The scene where Eleanor views her childhood made me so sad and the scene where The Keeper violently confronts Eleanor is traumatic.
(The Keeper) This forest has burned and regrown twice since the keeper has lived in the valley. The earth here has never forgotten its pain. It cradles the heat of its own death, always just beneath the surface, as though releasing the memory would be to forget it forever, to risk succumbing again. But forests burn. They always return. The keeper’s valley is an open wound, doomed to scratch itself until it bleeds and bleeds.
The first three-fifths of the book feel slow because Eleanor is a passive participant and there is no hint of what is going on, so it begins to feel repetitive. The beautiful writing and imagery kept me interested enough to continue reading. View Spoiler »I had made some correct assumptions about Mea, but other than that I was clueless. « Hide Spoiler During the last 40%, the pace really picks up and you start to get a few answers. Fantasy does require some suspension of disbelief and I was really enjoying traveling between the different worlds and Mea’s desperation to connect with Eleanor. I was willing to accept the unexplained specialness that allowed Eleanor travel to curious places. However, once a fourth character is introduced into the rift, I was completely lost. I could follow the story, but I had no clue why anything was happening or why this new character was so self-assured and powerful. Also: Eleanor’s story was really tragic and I could accept that she had a best friend that experienced similar issues, but the aunt’s story tipped it over the edge into “too much” territory. View Spoiler »Even so, the dream-like scene that delves more into her story is really emotional. « Hide Spoiler
(Eleanor) For a moment, Eleanor resents her mother, but this is nothing new. There have been many such moments during the past seven years. There will be many more. This is what it is like when a child must raise herself and her parent.
I think the end was supposed to feel hopeful, but it didn’t feel that way to me. View Spoiler »Grandma Eleanor still showed signs of depression and resentment of motherhood, despite pushing those thoughts away. A second child would only intensify those feelings, even with the altered timeline. She still dived into rough waters and her “rebirth” was helped along by a good samaritan. Agnes still seemed to have inherited her mother’s disposition (“Those dark, sad eyes. Too sad. That’s Eleanor’s fault; she is a lead weight strung to the ankles of those who love her.”). Perhaps everything will happen exactly the same, but Agnes will better be able to deal with it in a more constructive way. But since Grandma Eleanor seems to place some blame for her problems on her own cold and distant mother, I am not so sure. Because Efah was so snakelike, as if he slithered right out of the Garden of Eden, I was hoping for more of a cautionary type tale about manipulating time followed by a correction that would allow Eleanor and her family some closure in the present and allow Mea to pass through to her final destination. Efah ended up being a non-entity. A complete reset being the final solution disappointed me. « Hide Spoiler
(Eleanor) And it is miserable to think that this is what adulthood is like: two people, cowering behind their grief, lashing out at each other like injured animals.
It was beautifully written and I LOVE the imaginative settings, but it required more blind acceptance of unexplained phenomena than I had to give.
(If you are interested in the “time is a circle” concept, I can recommend the movie Predestination with Ethan Hawke. It hurt my head in a good way! Also Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. It can get tedious, but I talk about it ALL THE TIME.)
Note: Eleanor means “bright, shining one” and Efah means “darkness.”