Dept. of Speculation is Jenny Offill’s second novel. Her first, Last Things, was published way back in 1999, so long ago that I confess I have no memory of it except that I know that it must have been good as it’s still on my shelves having survived the series of charity shop culls over the past fifteen years necessary to make way for new books. You have to work hard to keep your place on my shelves these days. A quick look at Goodreads tells me that it’s narrated by eight-year-old Grace whose parents both want different things for her and whose family is slowly disintegrating.
Dept. of Speculation takes us back to similar territory, this time narrated by a wife who tells the story of her marriage – its early joys, shared parenthood, and the battering it takes when mid-life crisis hits. It’s funny, sad and beautifully observed. There are no names which makes the later pain all the more raw, somehow. It’s stuffed with erudition, from Keats to Simone Weil, advice from a nineteenth century marriage manual to Buddhism. Written in short paragraphs and broken up into chapters of only a page or two, it’s the kind of book that could easily be swallowed in one gulp but much better to take your time and savour the carefully crafted sentences Offill slips into her snapshots of married and family life: ‘I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. “It’s for my daughter,” I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.’; ‘Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.’; a post-it from her single days reads ‘”WORK NOT LOVE!”… It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.’; the relationship therapist works in the ‘Little Theatre of Hurt Feelings’. At one point a colleague says to the wife ‘Where is that second novel?….Tick tock. Tick tock’ which is either heartfelt or perhaps Offill having a little joke with her patient readers.
It all seems so effortless, like those quintessentially English herbaceous borders that look as if they’ve been thrown together but which are the product of a great deal of skill, knowledge and hard graft. This isn’t a book with a plot – nothing out of the ordinary happens – but the writing is superb and I’m pretty sure that’s why Last Things is still on my shelves. Perhaps it’s time for a little rereading.