A boy, a car, a journey, a question: the first sentence of Elizabeth Day’s new novel goes like this:
From the back seat of the old Chevette, heading north, the boy asked his question into the restless air.
The restless air? The reader makes the mental adjustment: it’s not the air that’s restless, it’s the boy and probably his whole family. So why the transferred epithet at this early stage?
It sets the tone for a transferred-epithet-filled novel so full of anguish and poetic touches that you’ll find yourself reading it in a hushed voice. Jim, the boy in question, ‘read the air around people, the calm or seasick air’. His mother, Nancy, notices how ‘the sun was warming his sunrise bones’.
Goodness, Jim needs some company of boys his own age. He spends most of the seven years of this quiet novel on his own, roaming about by a lake in Canada (where the diseased trees are ominously losing their needles) or cooped up in a small New York apartment, with parents who annoy each other but worship him and depend on him for their equilibrium. I found the son-worship excruciating. For example, Nancy thinks:
How lucky had she been to have a son like Jim? A boy who loved books, who not only listened when she read the Odyssey to him but made the request for it night after night?
He’s the kind of boy who studies the labels at museums, knows all the Greek myths, and devours The Story of Canada. He reciprocates his mother’s love, and this can a bit sickly, too. ‘Jim loved to watch his mother absorb the truth. She became still and her shoulders dropped a little.’