Elizabeth Reeder

Published by Freight Books 23 April 2012

176pp, paperback, £8.99

 Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

‘I’m flunking history. I’ve got a pyromaniac lab partner. I’m officially no longer a virgin.’

So far, so normal in the life of fifteen-year-old Chicago schoolgirl Roe (like the deer) Davis – except for one thing: her father Peter, who saw her safely to bed on Friday night, was gone by Saturday morning and hasn’t been seen since. Given into Peter’s care by her mother when she was a baby, Roe may now be truly and wholly abandoned.

Ramshackle, the first novel by Chicago-born, now Scotland-based writer Elizabeth Reeder, keeps the facts – and the emotions – stark in this clipped yet affecting account of eleven days in the life of Roe. While Peter’s family – sisterly aunt Linden, distracted by her impending art exhibition and her lovers, and ‘asshole’ uncle Duncan – offer the aid they can, Roe is often alone with her problems. And she has plenty to deal with – her best friend’s abusive father; a punitive teacher; a rift with her boyfriend Quiz.

Reeder creates a physical landscape that is neatly – at times excessively so – matched to Roe’s predicament. It’s winter in Chicago: the raw cold is relentless and penetrating. Next door, the Morse house – a decaying but lovely piece of domestic architecture which Peter helped build and which holds secrets and stories – stands between Roe and a ravine. When it is demolished, Roe is left precariously close to the precipice. Peter’s work as a locksmith means his home and shop are full of keys, locks, mysterious boxes and enigmatic pieces of intricate machinery. But Peter has taught Roe how to pick locks. He has not left her unequipped.

Decent fathers and responsible mothers are in short supply in this simple but piercing mystery. Reeder’s tendency towards the literal is offset by the depth of Roe’s predicament and the profound notes sounded in its final chapters. As the fate of the Morse house indicates, not all battles are won – one of several hard lessons Roe must learn during her rite of passage.

Unflinching on the subject of loss, tender in its depiction of the watershed between childhood trust and self-reliance, Ramshackle is a quiet novel with a small canvas, but one which dodges predictability to deliver an emotional punch. Quiet landscapes may be deemed unfashionable in current publishing terms, but they too can touch the heart and Reeder succeeds in doing just that.

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