‘Dept. of Speculation’, Jenny Offill

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This was one of those books that I started while lying in bed one Saturday morning and didn’t put down until it was finished.

I fell madly in love with this, which was on my Book Depository wishlist before I stumbled across a fresh, never-borrowed copy in the library.

It says a lot that I’m considering buying my own copy to keep on my shelf forever.

*

Bound together in captivating vignettes, Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation tells the story of a marriage in a brutal study of parenthood, relationships and unfulfilled aspirations.

Names are unnecessary in the depiction of a small family unit of husband, wife and daughter and the intense study of the mother’s perspective on her life.

This is no typical depiction of any average union, as Offill challenges the reader to link together the significant recollections of the protagonist in this novel that reads like a long poem in fleeting recollections, each individually considered.

We know our narrator as a married woman with a child – however, these newly-attained labels haven’t answered all of the questions she has about her own identity.

She grapples with responsibilities towards her husband and daughter as she tries to find energy to tend to both her family and her career aspirations, with a ambition to become an ‘art monster’ and one finished novel left long behind in pre-married life.

A promising future as a young creative has now been swapped for a career as a teacher and a ghostwriter for a book that never takes off. She describes the man she ghostwrites for and his fascination with aliens and outer space and laughingly calls him an ‘almost astronaut’ – ironic, considering her own career as an artist has now become a career writing under another’s name about a topic that does not interest her, for money.

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

In reading the stream of consciousness of our completely honest yet unreliable narrator in individually parcelled, independent paragraphs, the depth is in the intensity of this novel, which reads like the diary of the wife and mother as we are gradually plunged into the crisis brought on by an affair.

Her very personal reaction causes the wife to lose the connection with her husband and herself as she begins to describe herself as ‘the wife’ instead of saying ‘I’ and grapples with her repulsion with herself as her students unearth her own relationship with her mental health struggles.

The struggle with her husband’s infidelity leads her to invent her own plaitudes to praise herself and her marriage. This is a woman who constantly feels she needs to be fixed and is always searching for an alternative, a solution in the shipwreck that is her life.

A harrowing exploration of the inner self leads the reader to question whether our narrator will ever find inner peace as she moves forward with her own emotional rollercoaster of a life.

 

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