I was sold on This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! when I read an early review and learned it contained old ladies, ghosts, the morbidly obese, and alcoholics all stuffed together in a weirdly structured, careening plot. This novel is as quirky and fun as it sounds and proved to be a very quick, light read despite the dreary events befalling the characters.
While I absolutely love a good ghost story, I liked that the return of Harriet’s dead husband was not the showcase of this novel. This is the story of Harriet’s life, not her husband’s haunting. If I had written this novel, I know that I would have (mistakenly) obsessed over the logistics of Bernard’s ghost, would have inserted him into every scene, etc. It takes a skilled, restrained writer to not let the fantastic event of Bernard’s return overshadow the living and pleasantly normal characters.
I never really grasped what Bernard was up to with CTO Charmichael and what the rules of his ghostliness were. All I really garnered was that Bernard was giving up some chance at an afterlife to return to his wife for a few clumsy encounters. I didn’t particularly enjoy the scenes that featured Bernard haggling with the clerks of the afterlife, but I suppose they added some context to his visits and offered some explanation on why he couldn’t just stay or guide Harriet more than he did.
I loved the conversational, slightly-snarky tone of the writing. It’s incredibly accessible and made this book fly by. Though the language is casual, it’s not without beauty. Imagery such as the “dazed bumblebee of shock” circling inside of Harriet’s head add whimsy and depth to otherwise straight-forward prose.
The novel is not all cute metaphor and quirk, however – there are quite a few dark (and plot spoiling) happenings. Things end on a fairly uplifting note, but not before plunging into shocking and upsetting territory. A majority of the revelations about Harriet’s life are reserved for the last fourth of the book, which worked with the plot, but I did feel an emotional lopsidedness to this novel. I didn’t truly feel invested in Harriet as a character until the ending when we learn how and why she is flawed. Though, part of the charm of this novel is that you don’t really know who Harriet Chance is until the very end – and neither did she. I loved the sentiment, in the last paragraph of the book, when Harriet realizes that “our lives are more sinew than bone” and the whole structure of the novel falls together - all of the weird side-stories and flashbacks mean more than the solid, present acts did. It was a refreshing take on a familiar trope.
There are some weird similarities between this novel and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic/whatever you call an area with glaciers, the titles are conversational statements containing the main character’s name, both feature quirky women abdicating from a family, the cloud of maternal angst hangs heavy over each novel, the covers are almost the same light blue, and Bernard and Bernadette are pretty much the same name, right? Was this intentional? What is going on here? It’s easy to keep the two books straight since they’re written so differently and are, now that I think of it, not similar at all, but I couldn’t post this without bringing up the likeness.
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is an endearing, human read. I am excited to look into Evison’s other works, but I have to buy another box of decongestants first.
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance is available September 8th, 2015 from Algonquin Books.