A highly accomplished debut novel about family, love, loss, grief and growing up
From Carola Huttman @ Bookmunch.wordpress.com August 28, 2011
I can’t remember the last time a novel made me cry. Indeed, I’m not sure any book ever moved me to tears until now. From the very first sentence I was drawn into the complicated world of fifteen-year old Alice Bliss. Beneath her slightly gruff tomboyish adolescent exterior hides a great deal of warmth, compassion and sensitivity. Through her well-developed sense of observation and natural curiosity she breathes real humanity into the multitude of colourful characters who people her life. The uneasy relationship with her mother, Angie, stands in stark contrast to that with her father, whom she idolises. The love she feels towards her eight-year-old sister Ellie, mature beyond her years in many ways, is mixed with a sense of her own inadequacy.
When her father, Matt, announces he is about to leave the family to begin a six week training period prior to being deployed to Iraq Alice is devastated. Why can’t they send someone else, she asks. The family’s attempts to cope with the gap Matt’s absence leaves in their midst is palpably painful. Angie spends much of her time in bed, leaving Alice to look after Ellie and deal with the laundry and food preparation. Most of their meals are cheese on toast or variations thereof. In an attempt to feel closer to him Alice wears one of her father’s shirts, going for three weeks without washing it, because she fears she’ll lose touch with him if she does. Ellie tells her she is starting to smell, but Alice doesn’t care. The pain of missing her husband is made more acute for Angie by seeing her daughter wear his clothes and eventually she throws the shirt out with the garbage. Alice moves into her father’s workshop and when winter turns into spring begins planting the garden with tomatoes, beans and corn as she and Matt did every year.
Four days into Matt’s posting to Iraq two soldiers from his unit turn upon the Bliss’ doorstep. They explain that he has been reported missing. What little emotional glue held them together before now dissolves completely as Alice, Angie and Ellie each fall apart in their own way. Matt’s mother and Angie’s brother rally round, but even their strong support isn’t enough to relieve the misery of pain and uncertainty. Alice and Henry grew up together. They are best friends They live in the same street. Their mothers knew each other before they were born. They walk to school together, they do their homework together, Alice listens to him play the piano in the assembly hall before lessons. It’s what they always did without questioning it. Now Alice seeks refuge from her worries in Henry’s company, but one afternoon when she kisses him without thinking everything changes. They both realise they have feelings they didn’t know they had and their confusion and embarrassment pushes them apart. Yet there is still the annual spring school dance to plan for. They take the bus Downtown together to find outfits at a vintage clothes shop. When Henry sees Alice in a figure-hugging black dress he is forced to acknowledge those feeling to himself.
Eventually confirmation arrives that Matt has been found murdered and another phase begins in all their lives. They each find a new strength inherent within themselves, giving rise to some astonishingly lovely moments in the book. Amongst the sorrow of their loss, the distress of meeting the coffin off the plane when Matt’s body is brought home, the funeral and the wake (Harrington skilfully mirrors the seasons) there is a surprising sense of hopefulness and promise as the family comes to terms with what has happened and Alice stands at the cusp of blossoming into a beautiful, smart and gracious young woman. Initially the first person point of view didn’t quite work for me; it seemed somehow to hold up the flow of the narrative a little. I guess I got used to it after a while, but there were still places where I thought it would have read better in the third person.
A highly accomplished debut novel about family, love, loss, grief and growing up. With often sparse, yet very direct, language Laura Harrington digs down deep into the reader’s emotions making the story of Alice and her family feel incredibly real, three-dimensional and touching.
Read more @: http://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/%E2%80%98a-highly-accomplished-debut-novel-about-family-love-loss-grief-and-growing-up%E2%80%99-alice-bliss-by-laura-harrington/