Review: Ramshackle, by Elizabeth Reeder

Ramshackle, by Elizabeth Reeder (Freight Books)

ISBN 978 0 9566135 7 8, 161pp

In Ramshackle, Elizabeth Reeder captures perfectly the see-saw sensibilities of teenage years in this tender tale of becoming. On a cold, wintry Friday night in a house on the shores of Lake Michigan, fifteen-year old Roe Davis’s adoptive locksmith father reads her a chapter from The Golden Compass. She’s ‘already read the entire trilogy’ herself, and is too old to be read to, but it feels right. When she wakes up on Saturday morning, everything feels wrong. The house is cold and still, there’s ‘day old coffee in the pot’ but no sign of her father. Ramshackle charts Roe’s search for her father and for her own identity, and also her growing self-realisation that past memories are only partial truths.

Borrowing from the Bildungsroman, Reeder includes common teen issues and anxieties, such as absent fathers, negligent mothers, and betrayal by adults in authority, and she moulds them into a tale that’s both fresh and compelling. She threads the locksmith trope through the storyline to give it narrative depth. Roe puzzles secret compartments, unidentified keys, and broken locks. Is there a terrible family secret she can unlock, a code to decipher? Who was her mother? Where has her father gone and why now? Has he run off with Mr R, her Communication teacher’s wife? What’s the mystery of the identical boxes her father made for himself and Old Mrs Morse next door? And what of the lock to the old oak door that the Watson’s, Mrs Morse’s ancestors, carried from Scotland to their lakeside home that puzzled her father for so long?

The opening image of ‘Lyra trying to figure out how to read the alethiometer’ defines Roe’s quest: a teen between two worlds, she hovers on the portal between childhood and adulthood and behaves like any normal teenager: rebelling against Aunt Linden, her sudden-surrogate mother, she goes to parties, skips school, makes out, and talks back to her teachers. But she does un-teenage things too: she leaves the porch light on as a ‘beacon’ to guide her father home; she watches over Old Mrs Morse’s home while the land vultures gather; she follows her ‘pocket CTA train map’ on a journey to unexplored territories in the familiar urban landscape. Particularly effective is the way that Reeder conveys a sense of time and memory through the automated transit authority instructions that roll out during Roe’s ride around the ‘El’ on the day that she spools back through her fragmented memories searching for and reconstructing her true self.

 Belmont is next. Doors open on the right at Belmont.

Saturday brunch at Ann Sather’s. Cinnamon buns. My dad tells me not to lick my fingers. How can you not lick your fingers? Scoop up the white sugar frosting with your index finger and stick it in your mouth, lick your lips. How can you not?

Addison, doors open on the left at Addison.

He isn’t what he professes to be. People rarely are. He professes to be here for me. He went to a lot of trouble to procure me, to keep me, or so he says. And now he’s on a journey away from this city, this Gothamlike, fantasy city full of crime and poverty and absurd wealth. These sleek buildings, these twenty-three bridges. This corrupt past. This incredibly possible future.

Wrigley Field is empty, no flags flying, no bustle. No hope or disappointment. Just a shell.

Priority seating is intended for the elderly and disabled passengers. Your cooperation is requested.

Standing passengers please do not lean against the doors.

Sheridan is next. Doors open on the left at Sheridan.

Please familiarize yourself with the train’s communications, posted in each carriage.

This is Sheridan.

Doors closing.

It’s a fine debut but there are cracks. ‘Quizz’ (Roe’s boyfriend);  as a character name it’s too blatant. ‘Mr R’ debates the idea that ‘absence is presence’ in the Communication class; ‘an absence of evidence is not evidence of presence’ is a quotation that sits above a café booth and Roe tells us too-handily that it’s from Scott Weidensaul’s inquiry into absent or extinct species in The Ghost With Trembling Wings. And Roe ponders ‘the natural order’ too easily:

It’s just like with keys. Lock and key and how we think they make things whole when they come together, but what if it’s just the opposite, the lock is whole, a complete entity on its own and the key invades, pushes the molecules into unnatural spaces, tumbler and pin, and turns it.

But what if the natural order is with the two of you there? Right there. And when one goes, the air invades, displaces and everything is off kilter, unnatural. Space as the invading presence? As the opposite of the state of grace?

In her desire to hammer home the grand theme of loss, the whole narrative could easily slide into one of Chicago’s ‘glacial fault lines’. Ultimately, a skilful control of the material and subject anticipates such complaints and sidetracks the reader into a tissue of inter-textual borrowings and knowing nods in a text where Bambi is as plausible a reference as American Gods, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, of course, towering above all, the twinkling, magical, Northern Lights.