It was its cover that attracted me to Ellen Hawley’s Other People Manage. A bit Anne Tylerish, I thought, suggesting a novel about the ordinary everyday with a cast of characters you might recognise and a good dollop of insight. I wasn’t far wrong but there’s also a story behind Hawley’s book, sent unsolicited to its publishers who recognised what had landed in their laps. Her novel is about the gradual coming to terms with a new life after the person you’ve most loved has died.
That’s what you do when you’re flattened by gravity and by grief. You set yourself tasks. You set goals.
Marge and Peg had been together for over twenty years. They met in the ‘70s, dancing at the Women’s Coffeehouse long before the advent of gay bars, at least in small town Minnesota. They seemed a mismatched pair – Peg was a post-grad student training to be a therapist, Marge a bus driver – but something clicked on that first night and remained in place even after Peg told Marge she was being stalked, weathering the dramatic consequences. When Peg’s sister became pregnant, Marge found herself pulled into the family. It’s Peg and Marge who take over weekend childcaring duties when Deena eventually takes off leaving her two children with her younger sister. Marge is unsure how to slot into family life. Her own quietly dysfunctional version left her assuming that noisy families meant happy families but it seems that’s not the case. Having survived the most unnerving of beginnings, she and Peg see each other through ups and downs – Peg’s self-doubt, Marge’s emotional awkwardness – until they have the worst of news. Now that she’s alone, Marge is not sure how to be in the world.
I thought of myself as the person who took care of her, and didn’t notice the things she did for me.
Marge tells us her own story in a low-key narrative shot through with self-deprecating humour as she looks back over her life with Peg. They’re an unremarkable couple, only special to each other in that way that we all are when we fall in love, but they have the kind of start that’s far from ordinary, thrusting them together more quickly than might otherwise have happened. Over the twenty years they’re together, Peg teaches Marge how to be with people in a way she’d not quite caught the knack of as the only child of alcoholics. Hawley smartly nails her insider/outsider role in Peg’s family, as dysfunctional as her own in an entirely different way. Her portrait of a woman, laid low with grief, trying to find a way to carry on and hoping to find the faintest trace of her beloved’s smell in the clothes she can’t quite bring herself to dispose of is poignant and affecting. It’s a quiet little gem, no literary fireworks, but written with the kind of perceptive insight that must have made the publishers’ hearts sing when they pulled it out of the slush pile.
Swift Press: London 9781800750975 256 pages Hardback