Friday, November 19, 2010
Review: The Outward Room
The Outward Room by Millen Brand starts with a woman locked in a mental institution. She has been there since her breakdown some years ago, after her beloved older brother's death. But she is getting tired of the hospital and her life there and one day, she manages to escape. She goes to New York, taking for herself the name Harriet Demuth (we never learn her real name), pawning her treasured ring and looking for a job. But it's the Great Depression and no one is hiring. Hungry and exhausted, Harriet is lucky enough to befriend John, a machine worker who takes her in and shows her true kindness. The two learn to support and trust each other and discover the city during some of its darkest days.
It's funny that I chose this past Sunday Salon topic to focus on plot and how important plot is to a story because The Outward Room is exactly the sort of story that makes me think plot isn't so key if the writing and characters are strong. Not much happens in the way of big, important events in this book. It is not about overcoming The Man or fighting very hard. It's not an over-dramatic romance. It's just a simple story about one woman struggling against depression and the man who helps her come to terms with it. It's about two people making a meager but happy existence in the midst of the Great Depression. It's one of the sweetest and most poignant love stories I've ever read.
In the afterword, Peter Cameron says, "Millen Brand has that rare empathetic ability to love all his characters... And so the reader comes to feel, and fear, for the characters in a way that is almost unbearably tender." That is true. I can't say it any better myself. I felt so deeply for Harriet in this book, and wanted nothing more than for her to find happiness. And I felt the same way about all the other characters, too. Harriet's friend Anna, who wants so badly to marry a man but feels she can't because her parents are so dependent on her income. Harriet's first landlord, George, who doesn't talk much but tells her about life in the Amazon. Mary, the young girl who helps raise all the children in the neighborhood. So many people whose lives become intertwined and who learn to help each other through small but significant hardships.
This is a slow book. It didn't make my pulse quicken or my heart pound. There were times when I got tired of Harriet just staring out the window and thinking about death. But it's a book that is true. Many of us have experienced the loneliness that permeates this book, and felt pure relief when someone comes out of the fog to help us come back to ourselves. This book is about that process, and it describes it beautifully.
I received this book for free to review.