Lila Savage’s Say Say Say immerses us as readers in two very tightly-delimited spaces, and she does so in a way that illuminates and heightens the intensity of both those spaces and our own worlds. If this is Savage’s debut novel, her future looks pretty bright…
- Both spaces we are immersed in are domestic – the protagonist, Ella, is a home health care worker who works with the elderly, and we spend time in the apartment where she lives with her partner Alix in a happy marriage. We spend even more time in the house of Bryn and Jill, so much so that Ella gets nostalgic for the ways that the dust motes hit the afternoon light after her job ends when Jill is moved to a residential care facility.
- We are also immersed in the world of home health care, particularly as we see what Ella does while working with Jill. The title is the product of Jill’s dementia, as she often repeats herself three times – say! say! say! is the way Savage characterizes this speech pattern in the novel – although it also provides a sense of the novel’s tone.
- Ella could be sort of Disneyesque – she feels like a lightweight in a lot of ways, but my guess is that that’s just the way she tries to understand her world, as Jill’s case, with its unstoppable plunge towards the ending that we all face coloring every scene.
- Bryn’s grief is horrific. He’s a retired carpenter, and he’s the one who hired Ella (she’s experienced at this, but Jill is a particularly trying case), but he flits in and out of scenes almost like a fly or bee. He doesn’t know what to do with the sheer exhaustion of his life, and he’s constantly grateful to Ella for the amount of time she’s there, even if she’s being paid.
- In a sense grief boomerangs from Bryn to Ella (and perhaps back), as they try to prevent Jill from hurting either herself or the house, and Ella gains brief glimpses into just how badly this hurts Bryn to watch the woman he has shared his life turn into something he doesn’t recognize.
- And there is no redemption or transformation – Ella doesn’t use this experience to paint more effectively or more fiercely (she’s an on-again, off-again artist), and Bryn doesn’t find happiness ever after – it all just is.
- There’s a lot going on here with the sudden immersion of a paid stranger into families, the dispersal of work that used to be done by a family or a community and that is now handled through a monetary exchange, and so on. The gig economy for the win…
- We also see Jill’s world in the only way we can in novelistic form – through those who observe her.
- I’m tempted to compare this to Butler, Moshfegh,Emezi, Eisenberg, or Berlin, all women who write intensively and unforgivingly about domesticity and mental health, and the comparison is fair, although Savage is much less interested in the point of the view of the patient than she is those who watch the decline.
- And, like all these authors, Savage is capable of achingly beautiful prose. A couple of quick examples:
Jill no longer carried herself with the burdensome knowledge of continual assessment womanhood so often brings. (35)
Was Ella naturally kind and gentle, or had the culture made her so, worn her down like beach glass, pushed her to her knees, forever eager to please? (68)
Their roles were stripped genderless through a wildfire of loss, standing stark where lush growth might have hidden predators, there was only charred and shivering sufferer and co-sufferer, lover and beloved. (69)
The strength it must have taken to contain that suffering, so that only the edges showed, so that a stranger’s glance wouldn’t exactly read them but might snag on something ambiguously raw in his bearing or his voice, it amazed Ella. It also put her in the peculiar position of being able to let the whisper of it fall into the background when she didn’t have the energy for empathy. (91)
It was love as anticipation of loss, it was love as shared burden of pain and embarrassment. It was pain transformed into gratitude, for without the ache, a stained tablecloth was merely flawed, merely unlovely, but the ache was like a caress on her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek, a comb straightening the crooked part. (153)
There are many more.
Despite my love of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m starting to think that I have a thing for novels that simultaneously inhabit and explode the limits women find themselves bound by…