Monday, August 31, 2020

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

I think this book suffered for my having read it (mostly in one sitting) the day after I finished House of Leaves. That is not to say that this book is not good, it is (though I certainly liked House of Leaves more); the tonal shift between books nearly gave me whiplash. Whereas House of Leaves is dark and labyrinthine, Ellen Foster is, while having its own brand of darkness under the surface, bright and witty. After sitting with it for a week, I am able to recognize that Ellen Foster is very good, but I will need to read it again when it’s not likely to be overwhelmed by a recently finished book. 

I picked up a copy of this years ago when Walker Percy was still my favorite writer because he wrote the cover blurb. It probably didn’t help my enjoyment of the book that he compared its narrator to Holden Caulfield, which improperly set my expectations. While Ellen Foster has gone through equal trauma as Caulfield (if memory of the latter serves, greater), her voice is much less concerned with phoniness. It is as darkly funny. Her voice is closer to Huckleberry Finn or Scout, albeit with a much darker subtext. 

Ellen Foster, now living with her “new mama” narrates both her current, happier life and her traumatic experiences with her father and birth mother. The narrative technique of having a child telling the story of things they don’t fully understand is used to brilliant effect here. As she relates the abuse from her father it is absolutely gut wrenching. The same tactic is used to examine race in the south. In that it is reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, as the reader sees Ellen realizing that she is not better and has not had a harder time in life than her best friend, a black girl named Starletta. Like Huckleberry Finn, the intent is clear from the text, but the reaction to it will likely vary from reader to reader.

All in all this is an good book, one I hope to reread with adjusted expectations and with more distance from an all-consuming book like the one I read before it.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 63/75

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