These Fragile Things is an essay on survival: what does it mean to survive? How do we define successful survival? And when one’s life has changed dramatically, how are those around us dragged in to our experience of surviving? When teenager Judy is almost killed in 1982 by a falling tree, her parents respond in very different ways. Her mother, Elaine, is bogged down by the practicalities while her father, Graham, makes a pact with God. In this intense, emotionally complex novel, we witness (in the Biblical sense as well as the literal narrative sense) how Judy’s survival impacts not only on her parents, but those around her. And we wonder – along with all the characters in the book – whether and how that pact with God has manifested itself in the deeply spiritual visions Judy then has.
This book could be seen as an exploration of the impact of the embrace of religion on routine domestic life, but that would be to oversimplify what I think the author is trying to do. This book is more about our desire to explain what happens to us, to justify the tipping of the scales of existence to one side or the other, and our desire to maintain an equilibrium when everything changes. For me, the novel became particularly interesting once Judy began to experience her visions, and the author has done a clever balancing act herself by showing the impact of these extraordinary claims by Judy on two religious figures, Sister Euphemia from Judy’s new convent school, and Father Patrick, Graham’s priest. Their negotiations of their religion with the tensions of the real world are an interesting counterbalance to Graham’s absorption in Catholicism as the means of his salvation and Judy’s.
Without giving away the plot of the novel, what becomes apparent in the last part is that Graham’s initial evaluation of what it means for Judy’s to survive is challenged. Just as the novel explores in great detail the dynamics of a marriage under pressure, and the pervasive influence of memory and the past in shaping our present choices and how we remember what is happening to us right now, it also explores the dynamics of guilt about that survival. When Judy is labelled the Miracle Girl, she becomes the focus for everyone else’s grief and trouble, not to mention the focus for some equally faithless and lurid speculation about her family. Judy is positioned as responsible for the fates of others because hers seems to have been decided by God.
I would like to have read more about what Judy herself thought about that. We learn quite a lot about Judy’s experiences of her visions, but less about the impact of their consequences on her, such as what she feels about all the people who flock to her door. And while the author has evoked the social and cultural atmosphere of 1982 very effectively, for me there is a bit of a muddling in the narrative voice between the subjective stream of consciousness of Elaine and Graham in particular, and the omniscience of the writer, which occasionally makes Elaine and Graham sound a bit too objective about what is happening to them.
This novel will be about different things depending on who is reading it: about the internal pressures on a family in a crisis; a meditation on how teenagers and their parents negotiate changes brought on by growing up; about the difference between religion and faith and the sheer power of belief. Whatever you take away though, this book will make you think.
Review by Evie Woolmore.