Review by

Dept. of Speculation

Snapshots of a marriage

Jenny Offill’s little gem of a book Dept. of Speculation was on The New York Times’ list of 10 best books of 2014, and with good reason. It’s an unusual novel, written in snapshots, in much the same fragmented way our memory works. It’s the sum of those memories that create the narrative of our past or, in this case, the story of a relationship. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill tells an age-old tale in a refreshingly new way and creates something truly different.

Our narrator is a nameless woman, a writer and English teacher, who lives in New York City. Through snippets of information we learn that she has travelled around Europe, a bit about a few of her boyfriends, how she falls in love with a struggling musician that becomes her husband, how she looses a baby and gets pregnant again.

Mixed in with the snippets are quotes and facts of all kinds, that help build an understanding of our heroine and her emotional state. I really enjoyed her writing style; a lot is said with few words and nothing is spelled out for you.

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

 ‘I love autumn,’ she says. ‘Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favourite time of year?’ She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. ‘Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I say autumn now instead of fall.’

I run into an acquaintance on the street, someone I haven’t seen in years. When I knew him, we were both young. He edited a literary magazine and I sometimes wrote for him. He had a motorcycle but married early, both of which impressed me. He is still very handsome. As we talk, I discover he has a child now too. ‘I think I must have missed your second book,’ he says. ‘No,’ I say. ‘There isn’t one.’ He looks uncomfortable; both of us a calculating the years or maybe only I am. ‘Did something happen?’ he says kindly after a moment. ‘Yes,’ I explain.

About half-way through, the narrative perspective changes from ‘I’ to ‘she’, as the story takes a turn. It’s an unsettling trick, which jolts the reader and makes you realise that something is amiss, that our heroine has become a stranger to herself.

Where Offill really got me, and I suspect will get many of you too, is in her description of motherhood, especially in the first few months with a colicky and difficult baby. She perfectly captures the sense of loneliness: ‘After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.’

And the feeling of accomplishing nothing: ‘What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.’ At the same time, she describes the sense of unconditional love for her new-born daughter.

They get bogged down in everyday problems, mice in the flat, head lice, a broken toilet, and bedbugs, culminating in a comical Christmas card:

Dear Family and Friends,

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no music. It is the year of no book. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

With love and holiday wishes.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about this couple and that’s why it’s so easy to identify with them. When it starts to go wrong, you know this could be you too. Life has simply caught up with them.

Her nameless musician husband remains a bit of a ghost and I wish there had been some more meat on his bones to better understand him. The early glimpses we get reveal a perfectly decent guy, but then things start happening and we’re no longer so sure. It’s definitively a one-perspective narrative; sometimes you wonder what his version would be.

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Dept. of Speculation is a book about being a woman (and I have to say, this is definitively a woman’s book), about letting go of youth and freedom, dealing with life and fixing things that go wrong. And Offill does it all with such lightness and grace that this book, which will take you a day to read, will stay with you for weeks.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is published by Granta, 177 pages

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