I have only ever read one short story by Aimee Bender and sadly didn’t like it (not so much the writing as the subject matter, not that I can even remember now what it was) but when an email arrived offering a review copy of an Invisible Sign of my Own, curiosity got the better of me. This isn’t unusual, but the book certainly is, because that curiosity stayed with me from beginning to end, something that marks this out as a bit of a masterpiece.
It was possibly a difficult week for me to tackle a book that deals with difficult subjects: – you know the ones I mean: illness, bereavement, loneliness, but then I didn’t quite know what I was letting myself in for. The narrator Mona Gray has come up against all of these early on in her life. By the time she is twenty a neighbour’s baby has died and been left behind by its family, her father who inspired her on the running track has fallen prey to some debilitating illness that is too awful to be talked about, and her favourite maths teacher has deserted her just when she thought they would be soul-mates. She continues to find solace in the immutability of numbers, but when she is asked to teaching math(s) in a primary school, death still rears its ugly head in the shape of Lisa Venus, an eight-year-old struggling to deal with her mother’s terminal cancer.
But if death is the subtext, there’s plenty more going on in this beautifully crafted story and as a writer I’m reminded just how much plotting is actually contained in what will be remembered as an elegant and literary novel. Mona fancies the science teacher something rotten but a fear of intimacy makes her eat soap rather than have sex. The hardware store is a harmless interest, but buying an axe that looks like the number 7 is an odd way to celebrate a birthday. Then there are the mysterious numbers littering the neighbourhood, dropped there accidentally, or harbingers of more awful things to come?
I hope my description doesn’t make this sound like a dark and joyless book. If so, I’m not doing it justice. Even though we worry about them, Mona and her school-children are great fun to be with and eventually she does work out that if death is inevitable, there is a natural order in the universe that makes it easier to bear.
I shall look out for Aimee Bender’s other novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I’m told it’s as good if not better. But I might approach it with caution, and on a day when I have plenty of emotional resilience to hand.
Finally, I read this as a paperback, and it reminded me of the nuances of typography that add to the distinctive character of a book in a way that the Kindle e-book fails to address.