The unreliable narrator tends to get a bum rap for committing a multitude of sins against trusting readers. But what happens when the narrator is impaired? In Lydia Millet's My Happy Life
, a nameless woman with a mental deficiency is locked inside an abandoned asylum. To pass the time between staying alive and attempting escape, she scribbles her life story on the walls that separate her from the rest of the world.
In childhood she catapults from one charitable home to another, abused by fellow residents and schoolmates, and eventually winds up sleeping on park benches. As a young woman she falls prey to a sadistic wealthy patron who kidnaps her. With graceful and often poetic simplicity, Millet thrusts us into the childlike mind of a person who has a limited ability to make herself understood in an unforgiving world. This woman's story--covering decades and spanning continents--is utterly tragic, yet her capacity for joy shines throughout. It's quite an about-face from Millet's last novel, the silly and satirical George Bush, Dark Prince of Love. Despite its many abstractions (Where are we? How much time has passed?), the book flows easily and doesn't step outside this determined, faithful woman's story for a second. Her character may not have a name, but readers will ultimately trust her--in happiness and in sorrow. --Emily Russin
From Publishers Weekly
Occasionally a book comes along that is truly written (as writers are instructed books should be) as if it were the writer's last: Millet's sad and infinitely touching third novel (after the absurdist George Bush, Dark Prince of Love) is such an extraordinary work. Brief and unsparingly forthright, the story is told from the miraculously cheerful perspective of a battered, neglected, friendless woman who is locked inside a windowless madhouse cell. The institution is apparently scheduled for demolition; the narrator's last caretaker, Jim, has not returned to feed her in some time. All she possesses are a few broken-down items she carries with her everywhere and that tell her "happy life" story: a cardboard box labeled Brown Ladies Narrow 8, in which she was left at a foundling home as an infant; a broken tooth from habitual pummelings she incurred as a "meat sandwich" at the hands of her fellow orphans; a frayed orange towel she used to sleep in, in parks; and, most horribly, a torn corner of one of the bills that were left to her by a rich older man who locked her away, beat her regularly with a "historical instrument" and later stole her baby. Despite the ghastly physical scars the narrator bears from neglect and abuse at others' hands, she remains a naf at heart, prone to forgive human harshness as people's inability "to know their own strength." Most incredibly, Millet has managed a few light-handed, affecting strokes to give her narrator charm and even humor ("Excuse me," she says when brutally overcome). The details of her fabulous, tortured life are precise and quirky, and she is always allowed to tell her story in her own childlike way to startling ironic effect in a novel that stands as a courageous and memorable achievement. (Jan. 9)Forecast: Millet's satirical voice is distinctive, but her work tends to resist easy classification. This novel represents a definite leap for her, and should raise her profile, though it is probably too grim to appeal to a truly wide audience.
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