It’s 1983 in Chicago, and a pregnant Carmen is getting married to Matt. During their somewhat bohemian wedding reception, we meet Carmen’s siblings: Nick, who’s dressed in drag and is getting stoned with his girlfriend, Olivia; and Alice who goes off to have sex with the other bridesmaid, Maude, the groom’s sister. All of them are ‘in their last hours of making mistakes with small prices.’
All at various degrees of unraveling, Nick, Alice, Maud and another friend leave the party in the early hours of the morning with Olivia at the wheel. Soon after, they hit a 10-year-old girl who seems to have appeared from nowhere. The girl dies.
This one incident will forever remain a stain on the lives of those involved, showing them in their true light.
Olivia spends several years in jail, and the book charts their lives over the next 25 years; we are with them through divorce, parental bullying, familial hostility, drug addiction, eating disorders, success and failure. Yet this is not the big, redemptive story line you’d expect. No massive life lessons are learnt. Guilt is the only common denominator that permeates the entire text, simmering in the background of their lives, never letting them go.
So this book is a difficult one because none of the character’s lives are explicitly and overtly affected by this incident. And I do admire Anshaw for not making this an obvious read, however, this means that the events of this book are placed firmly in the dips and lifts of ordinary, everyday life. The chapters alternate between the three siblings at various stages of their lives and are temporally anchored by events such as 9/11. Nick pulls the family down with him through his lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction, Alice’s flourishing art career is tainted by her unfruitful infatuation with Maude (who doesn’t acknowledge that she’s gay), and the moral Carmen struggles with her role as both mother and wife in a rapidly changing world where people appear to have ‘lost interest in belief itself, as though belief were tennis, or French film.’
The book is a quiet one and can admittedly be quite slow in places but Anshaw writes exceptionally well. She truly delves into the minds of her characters, lifting them off the page and bringing them to life. The little girl is never there but always present, linking these people through shared experience:
‘There’s still this connection between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add as up, you always have to carry the one.’
What we ultimately learn is that tragedy is a complex contradiction that can completely change the person you are while at the same time changing absolutely nothing. In all its mess, life goes on.