Head Trip: A Review of Elizabeth Graver’s Unravelling, The Honey Thief, and Awake
At times during my reading of all three of Elizabeth Graver’s novels, I found myself weeping; not because of a tragic twist of plot, but because I recognized my own shadowed reflection staring back at me.
Graver, who teaches at Boston College, was the youngest recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and has published work in Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories, is also a masterful novelist.
She ferries her readers into the psyches of her characters, nearly all of whom are women in her three novels: Unravelling, The Honey Thief, and Awake.
Unravelling spans the adolescence and young adulthood of Aimee, a 19th century girl determined to break free of the tightly laced reality of New England farm life. The Honey Thief revolves around a fatherless shoplifter, Eva, who spends most of her twelfth summer alone, drifting in an adolescent no-woman’s-land between childhood and maturity. In her most recent novel, Awake Graver taps into the rich vein of motherhood, and follows Anna, whose 9-year-old son suffers from a rare (and real) genetic disorder called XP, a hypersensitivity to UV radiation.
Although her three novels vary in terms of setting, character and plot, a unifying thread woven through all her stories is rebellion: profound, internal rebellion. She gradually reveals the struggles that take place in the depths of her characters’ minds, often never even developing into words or dialogue, but driving her characters as surely and steadily as a heartbeat.
In Unravelling, the central character Aimee says, “I could have been named Charity or Grace, been stronger, or more yielding. I could have been born a child who walked the middle road; instead, I needed both solitude and touch with a hunger that left me breathless, split in two.”
Aimee’s yearning to break free of her muddy, rural roots lurches her into the hell of a 19th-century sweatshop. Aimee’s rebellion is multilayered; she strains against the conventions of her day, and against her family, with mixed consequences for herself.
The Honey Thief’s main character is Eva, the adolescent daughter of Miriam. The story is told from both points of view and is set in present-day rural New York, where Miriam has whisked her daughter in hopes of a fresh start. But Miriam gets lost in her own troubles, leaving Eva to navigate both the unfamiliar territory of their new home and her own rangy puberty, alone. Eva pushes against her mother in typical 12-year-old fashion, while Miriam sorts out her own mother’s death and her marriage to a man whose manic depression finally killed him. Both characters strain against the bit of their respective roles, pulling against one another, then clinging to each other; the clumsy, painful dance of growing up.
Graver herself became a mother during the writing of her most recent novel, Awake. She renders both the beauty and the pain of mothering in exquisite detail. In Awake, the rebellious character is the mother, Anna, a woman so tightly bound to her very ill son, Max, that she has lost sight of her own identity and is invested only in her role as his protector. Anna describes motherhood: “Never could I have imagined how far the world would contract, a tight fist, a shuttered eye, set of closing doors.” It is only at Camp Luna, where Max is safe to play and explore, that Anna begins to explore her own desires.
“If I were a different sort of person,” says Anna, “this would be the story of my son and the sanctuary we found for him. It would be the story of a family coming together around a child’s illness, finding a community, one another, maybe even God.” But we learn, as Anna does, that she is not that sort of person at all.
By revealing the most private thoughts of her characters — notably mothers and daughters — Graver allows us to explore feelings that often feel too shameful or frightening for society to examine in much detail. In doing so, she lets us know we’re not alone; she gives mothers permission to feel ambivalent about the path we have chosen. When writers throw back the perfect, 300-thread-count covers of motherhood in this way, to show us the stained — albeit soft and solid — mattress that supports us underneath, I feel mothers breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Graver’s books feature little dialogue between characters and are Devoid of snazzy, zigzagging plot twists. The twists she explores are more internal: these are the intimate coils of personality, the often-ambiguous convolutions of true human emotion.
“In all my writing, I’m trying to portray characters who are complicated, flawed, trying to find their way,” said Graver in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “I am not interested in easy divides between good and evil, any more than I am interested in easy happy endings, tying things up with a bow. I AM interested in inner life, and in strong emotions; my characters tend to feel a lot — they are not the reticent, held-back, wordless characters of minimalism.”
Her characters, therefore, are full, and ripe with contradictions, bad judgment, and good intentions; the major events of her stories stem from the consequences of their choices. In Unravelling, for instance, Aimee’s journey is determined largely by her actions, not by the hand of fate. In Awake, it is Anna’s own choices about marriage that drive the twists in the story, rather than her son’s illness.
One of the things I love about Graver’s writing is that she isn’t afraid to examine the flip side of a character’s actions. She gives us rounded characters; knotted, conflicted, real mothers who not only behave selflessly, feel guilty, and kiss the boo-boo to make it better, but who also are flawed, and privately wonder if maybe motherhood wasn’t the best choice after all. We see the adolescent who wants to creep back into her mother’s lap, and yet can’t bear to live another day in her presence. We see mothers who want to be children again, who can’t quite grasp that they are in charge of navigating not only their own life, but their offspring’s; mothers who turn away from their children altogether; mothers who nearly drown in their kids’ realities.
Flannery O’Connor once said that anyone with a childhood has enough material to write fiction. I’d add that anyone who added adolescence and motherhood to her list of accomplishments would have enough to write several volumes. Graver has chosen mothers and adolescent girls as her protagonists, and writes convincingly about the swampy territory of people in the midst of great change. Her narrative pulls readers through the murky waters, examining the messy range of emotions that come with growing up.
Aimee, the 19th-century teenager in Unravelling, speaks of the timeless betrayal of the pubescent body. “But I could feel how my sin had been written on me — how my mother, if she poked her head around the curtain to hand me a cake of soap, would be able to read it in the way my lap-hair grew sleek underwater and my breasts blushed and hardened in the cold air. What did she know that she was not saying? I hunched over and scrubbed my legs and arms, my shoulders and the middle of my stomach, the safe places, the ones that had not changed.”
In The Honey Thief, modern day Eva engages in a teenage tug-of-war with her mother, Miriam. She asks herself, “And what was wrong; what had happened? She didn’t know — it just rose up in her lately, a bottomless, nameless something that coated her mouth and made her stomach burn. When it came over her, she had an urge to lower her head, ball her fists and hurl herself against Miriam until she shoved back, hard, and sent Eva sprawling to the floor.”
Graver writes about the uncomfortable and yet exhilarating need for privacy of teenagers. “Eva knew more and more things, these days, that she didn’t tell her mother — about the bees, for one, the gardening and mites. Not to mention her talks with Jesus, the hairs on her body, her nipples, which were starting to chafe against the insides of her shirts. The honey in her closet. Her diary, which was hidden away like the queen bee.”
Graver reminded me of the strange similarities between pregnancy and puberty, when hormones run wild, breasts come alive, bodies take over. In all three of her novels, Graver writes about the parallels, both physical and emotional; losing control of one’s body, aching to be both grown and small at the same time.
She has the physical sensation of teenager territory down. As Aimee tells us in Unravelling, “But the summer I turned 14, a great exhaustion, a sleepy waterlogged idleness invaded me, and the world became an itching, prying thing.”
Later in Aimee’s pregnancy, she says, “Day by day by day I watched my changes, and after a while I stopped being hungry and wanted to make myself small and thin again. . . . Now that self was swelled and ugly, and my breasts ached and changed color, and a line of pigment striped my belly like a skunk’s. It reminded me of earlier times, moving from my quick girl body to the itching skin of a woman.”
But even putting aside the compelling psychological terrain, Graver is simply a good writer. She creates metaphors and similes so languid and fresh that I caught my breath, pen scribbling in the margins, my mouth saying, “aah.”
In a lovely metaphor, Graver places the teenage Aimee from Unravelling in the barn, having been cast out of the main house for her 19th-century version of uppity teenager-ness. “I slept in the toolshed that night, determined not to go into the house until someone called for me. Please call for me, I thought, but no one did.” Aimee finally falls asleep, but is awakened by the cold. When she can withstand it no longer, she pulls her mother’s “monthly rags” from the clothesline. “Whiter than snow, whiter than teeth, white as only something cleaned by my mother and bleached by the sun could be.” She covers herself with them and, warmed, sleeps through til morning.
She describes knees like scrubbed potatoes, hair that escapes from a bicycle helmet like something live, city-careful bricks, and eyes flecked with the yellow hanging-ons of moss. “I wanted the cadmiums,” says Anna in Awake, “color so powerful the smell of it could change the structure of your cells.”
Using only the folding of the washing as a metaphor, we get into the very fiber of the push-me-pull-you dance of adolescence in a passage from Unravelling. “Sheets seemed to be her favorite because they had no holes, no places to come undone. . . . Folding them between us was like a kind of dance — leaning back to pull the wrinkles from the fabric; stepping then toward each other, arms upraised. . . . Sometimes I would feel a sharp, painful dart of love for her — this woman retreating from me with her hands gripping the sheet, then coming at me again, sometimes playful, waltzing, mostly just anxious to get done. I was always sorry to see so much made into so little, to watch my mother turn away from me to other things. We began with a huge, billowing wilderness between us. We ended with a cold, white cube.”
There are no neat knots tied in the endings of Graver’s novels. Her characters come to terms with their tangled relationships, but there are no Hollywood endings. However, I wouldn’t call her novels dark. Graver’s writing is so lovely and lyrical, I’d follow her through hell, but we’re not forced to do that. All of Gravers’ characters acknowledge their flaws and faults, and thus her novels are satisfying. She pulls no punches, and the self-awareness that unfolds does not result in shiny epiphanies or moralistic judgments. Graver’s characters are complicated. They figure some things out, and keep blundering along, doing the best they can, becoming more aware with each mistake. The characters do grow to understand and even appreciate themselves and we witness that growth from the very intimate perspective of being inside their heads.
For some, this sort of writing might feel somewhat claustrophobic, voyaging through the recesses of characters’ minds. Perhaps a less confused, more buttoned up reader would be flabbergasted by all the gray messiness in Gravers’ characters. But many a mother will closely relate to their dualistic anxieties and tangled feelings.
Taking this three novel trip with Elizabeth Graver made me want to have her as a friend on my speed dial; someone I could call at 4:30 and tell her that what I wanted more than anything was to drive a shiny black convertible at full speed into the sunset, away from my kids. And then call her back at 9 and confess that I’d just gone to their room, watched them sleeping and wept because the day was over, because they were growing up and away from me. It seems like she’d understand this wild ride of mothering, the push-me-pull-you of being a woman, a wife, a mother, a parent, a lover, a daughter.
In writing so beautifully, so artfully about the human experience, about strong women’s choices, mistakes, and how they cope, Graver has, like a good friend, shown us that we’re okay. That we’re not alone in our ambivalence about motherhood, that it’s normal to feel 12 and 40 at the same time. That we can appreciate our lives the way they are and still feel the pull of wanting something more.