Review: Whispers Through the Megaphone, by Rachel Elliot

A traumatised soul finds her voice again in an engaging and accomplished debut

Sat, Sep 19, 2015, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
Whispers through the Megaphone

ISBN-13:
9780992918224

Author:
Rachel Elliott

Publisher:
Pushkin Press

Guideline Price:
£12.99

‘I whisper therefore I am not an irritation. I whisper therefore I am.” Miriam Delaney hasn’t left her house in three years. When she speaks, the words come out in whispers. The reclusive 35-year-old is at the centre of Rachel Elliott’s dynamic debut, whose simple premise is that adult voices are shaped by childhoods, good and bad.

Whispers Through the Megaphone is an accomplished novel with considered views on human behaviour and connections. Through the interlaced stories of a colourful cast, Elliott asks big questions, and often provides the answers, about our fleeting existence here on earth.

Two mysteries propel the narrative, the first concerning Miriam’s traumatic past at the hands of a harsh, mentally unstable mother. With a cruelty and erraticism that is brilliantly drawn, Frances Delaney is an unfit person, never mind an unfit mother, someone who can’t deal with the world around her and takes her frustrations out on her young daughter.

Having got rid of Miriam’s father by threatening to kill their daughter if he doesn’t leave, Frances seems to take pleasure in shutting down Miriam’s life. No friends, no light, no unnecessary noise: “Frances couldn’t bear the din of her offspring. She couldn’t bear the din of the world. Washed lettuce must be washed. Trimmed beans must be trimmed.”

When Miriam breaks up an affair between Frances and a loathsome school principal, her mother sets out to quell her voice entirely. The girl’s letters to her grandmother, her sole line to the outside world, are commandeered: “From now on, you’re going to write what I tell you to write. Your words will be my words. What goes in your mouth and what comes out of it are up to me.”

Re-entering society

Years later, with Frances now dead, Miriam sets about finding her voice and re-entering society. Helping her on the journey is no-nonsense friend Fenella, Boo the velour-tracksuit-wearing neighbour and – the second mystery – a stream of anonymous postcards offering inspiration, such as: “You could cycle through the streets with the wind in your hair.”

Along the way, Miriam crosses paths with another important character, Ralph Swoon, an unhappy gardener turned psychotherapist whose sham of a marriage to closet lesbian Sadie is beginning to crack. After a chance meeting in a forest, Ralph and Miriam reach out to each other and find strength in their new friendship.

There is a quiet humour in Elliott’s writing, with Miriam’s wry observations throwing her dark history into relief. She sits at home and makes lists about what she’s afraid of, lists on which mother figures feature prominently. In the imaginative way of dealing with trauma and the often deadpan tone of Miriam’s voice, the book is reminiscent of Nina Stibbe’s excellent debut, Man at the Helm.

Its snippet-like structure and whimsical jaunts also call to mind another recent debut, Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It is a type of narration that seems increasingly evident in contemporary literature, perhaps reflective of the way communication has changed with travel and technology.

Perspectives

Elliott switches perspectives and forms with ease. Social media, which can be an intrusion in fiction, is put to good use, with Sadie’s incessant tweeting conveying her inner turmoil. As she shares intimate details of her marriage online, Ralph’s clients end up analysing their analyst: “‘Sadie hates that jumper,’ said Jilly. ‘But she’s probably just jealous of your mother.’”

Ralph and Sadie’s crumbling relationship is at once funny and painful. While Sadie chases a former girlfriend, Ralph has a meltdown in a B&Q: “Sometimes a gnome is not a gnome: it is a giant symbol of everything that’s wrong with your life. Seconds before he headbutted the gnome, he was pretending to admire a vase of plastic daffodils.”

This succinct way of summing up a life falling apart is Elliott’s gift, supported by a deep understanding of what makes her characters tick. From Suffolk, she has a background in psychotherapy and her knowledge of people shines in her fiction. For all its wit, it is the author’s gimlet eye on human interaction that will engage readers. As Ralph hopes to bring his old guitar out of retirement for his birthday party, Sadie sticks the knife in. “‘You’re not going to play it tonight?’ she said, wielding the strongest of marital superpowers: the ability to evoke shame.”

While Ralph and Sadie’s story is entertaining, it is Miriam’s that packs the punch. Her journey from an almost muted existence to embracing her fears and the wider world is poignant and convincing. “Being a people person is about whether contact with others enlivens you or makes you feel tired – it has nothing to do with liking people,” Miriam explains. This is the story of a woman back from the brink of exhaustion, trusting in connection one more time.