“Isn’t language amazing? I can’t get over it. Sometimes you can just say things and it’s like a bomb that blows all your clothes off and suddenly there you are naked. I don’t know if it’s disgusting or beautiful.”
So says Mathilda Savitch, protagonist of the novel of the same name by Victor Lodato. It’s a lovely quote for lovers of words, but beyond that it encapsulates so many of the prevailing tensions in the book — innocence, violence, and vulnerability. For not only has Mathilda grown up in the age of terror, but this incomprehensible fear, this intangible evil is manifested in her personal life by the death of her cherished older sister Helene. It is a sensless death by train that left Mathilda’s whole family permanently shell-shocked, and their remaining daughter emotionally orphaned by her parents’ inability to let go of their dead daughter. And so Mathilda tries to make sense of her world, tries to achieve some control, pulling out hairs from her head to control errant thoughts, building a bomb shelter in her basement to find some protection from the emotional fallout upstairs, and launching an investigation of what really happened to her sister, even though deep down she knows the truth.
Mathilda is a somewhat unreliable narrator, a fact I’ve seen criticized, but for me, Mathilda’s unique, if not entirely factual, narration is what makes this novel worthwhile. What happened is rather mundane, how Mathilda tries to deal with it is far more interesting. She peels away all her secrets, fantasies, and fears, taking us deep into the mind of a young woman on the cusp of growing up, dealing with all the normal conflicting emotions about her body, her friends, and her family, while trying to grapple with tremendous guilt, grief, and fear in a world that has proven unpredictable and often irrational. This book is not a simple loss of innocence like we’re taught in high school English, one that operates like s a swift kick to the stomach, changing the person forever. Instead, Mathilda Savitch demonstrates that innocence is lost in fits and starts, like growing pains. In fact, though she has lost her sister before page 1, it is toward the end that Mathilda realizes “This is where grown-ups live, and suddenly I’m afraid I’ll have to stay here forever.”
A book with a striking voice will capture my interest instantly, and Mathilda Savitch qualifies. I was with her from the opening sentence, and my attention never wavered. It is appropriately blurbed by Healther O’Neill, for the book is in many ways reminiscent of Lullabies for Little Criminals. The same striking and unusual metaphors, the same deep-seated fears guised as courage. Sometimes Mathilda may seem a little too mature for her years, but I ascribed this too the effects of loss and growing up too young, rather than any failing of Lodato, who, as a successful playwright, surely knows how characters should sound.
It’s a book you should absolutely read (in fact, it was my recommendation for the Advent Books series created by the brilliant Julie Wilson & Sean Cranbury). Read it for Mathilda’s brilliantly rendered voice. Read it to rediscover truths we know too well, as seen through a child’s eyes. Things like: “Time is funny lately. Nothing to do with clocks,” or “Even if you don’t believe in God, you still have to believe in evil.” And even if you’ve never lost someone, and you watched the Twin Towers fall as an adult, read it to remember that growing up is always fraught with peril, with insecurity, with an unshakeable desire for the world to be different, and to be a different person in it. Read it because you’ll find your own childhood in this fragile emotional landscape, for as Mathilda says,
“The best stories are like that. They’re like spaceships. They take you somewhere far away and you think, oh, what a weird place. But then you think, wait, maybe I’ve been here before. Maybe I was even born here.”
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