272 pages, $24.95
Lies have a way of revealing truth. Motives. Fears. Obsessions. And arenâ€™t writers the most fabulous liars? Great fiction is, in a sense, a series of fantastical lies spun into a gold-threaded web that somehow ensnares your heart with its truth, like the stardust inside all of us drawing our heads skyward, propelling us to fashion myths, to make up makers.
The Coffins of Little Hope is a book preoccupied with deception, half-truths, myths. A bone-lonely and vaguely deranged woman, Daisy, reports that her young daughter, Lenore, is missing, while the entire country is in a tizzy over the impending finale of a series of infamous YA novels, the Miranda-and-Desiree books, which seem to be a delightfully morbid blend of Harry Potter and Lemony Snickett.
Schaffert created the perfect narrator for this taleâ€”Essie, or S Myles according to her byline, the octogenarian obituary writer for her familyâ€™s small town newspaper. Essie may be one of the most expertly rendered characters Iâ€™ve ever read. Tart, feisty, curious, unsentimental yet loving. I cannot imagine traveling through this tale with another guide. Essie knows pretty much everyone in the area, and peppers the story with her â€œgreatest hits,â€ her most fondly-remembered obituaries. Her grandson, the lovably silly and earnest Doc, runs the paper, a somewhat unwilling inheritor, after his parents died in a car crash. The familyâ€™s dynamic is fascinating, and in a way, grounds the other more fanciful aspects of this novel into a heart-centered reality. Docâ€™s sister, Ivy, abruptly returns after several years, to claim her now-teenage daughter, Tiff, who she abandoned to follow her lover/professor to Paris, and who has spent all this time with Doc. Doc and Tiff have a strong, bittersweet bond that brought me close to tears more than once. Essieâ€™s family is simultaneously dysfunctional and close-knit, as many families are.
Daisy, on the other hand, taps into modern humanityâ€™s more morbid traitsâ€”fascination with missing and/or dead children, fascination with a woman publicly unraveling, fascination with possible hoaxes, considering that Lenore may or may not have existed at all. Daisy is another expertly rendered character, all feather â€“light and wilting, sequestered in the Crippled Eighty, the farm she inherited from her father, the farm she allegedly raised Lenore, the possible child, the possible victim, possibly stricken by hypergraphia, writing cramped little lines in notebooks Daisy claimed to have burned to hide her daughterâ€™s madness. Doc and Essieâ€™s little newspaper becomes a beacon of light, where readers from all over flock to get the latest news of mad, mad Daisy and her possibly imaginary Lenore. Not to mention, the newspaper is one of a handful of small presses that are clandestinely printing the final Miranda-and-Desiree novel, aptly titled The Coffins of Little Hope.
The writer of this series appears throughout the novel too. His name is Muscatine, and he had me at hello. I adored his eccentricities and his classic melancholia. His fucked up relationship with his daughter, and his hurried letters rendered in shorthand to our narrator, Essie, who writes back, with whiffs of longing, keeping her pen-pal a secret, a last romance, as it were. This novel purrs with at least a dozen characters, but Schaffertâ€™s deceptively simplistic, charmingly sharp writing keeps them all fresh and unique. I only wish there were more of each, particularly more of the local ministerâ€™s wife, Abby Most, who has a few striking scenes, but it just wasnâ€™t enough for me.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the vignette-style of each chapter. Some of them could almost have been stand-alone short stories, but there was a gossamer-light but undeniably present thread running through them all. There was a master narrative at work throughout it, even if the chapterâ€™s content veered off-center. Another thing I loved about this novel was the way Schaffert brought to bear the lovely tragedy of our brief lives and the gravity of passing time. During one particularly evocative chapter, Essie visits her sister, Lydia, in a nearby nursing home on Thanksgiving. Lydia is steadily deteriorating, bested by Alzheimerâ€™s, in and out like a partially unscrewed light bulb.
She put her hand on my wrist. â€œIâ€™d fix you something before you go, but I always fall asleep in the kitchen.â€
â€œNo,â€ I said, â€œyou always fall asleep in the car, not in the kitchen.â€
â€œWell,â€ she said, sighing again, returning her gaze to the TV. â€œI guess youâ€™d be the only one whoâ€™d know.â€
It was getting dark even earlier than Iâ€™d expected it to. â€œI need to get home, love,â€ I said. â€œI promised the kids.â€
â€œThe kids,â€ she said, sneering. â€œWhen youâ€™re a kid, they tell you, Better enjoy it now.â€
â€œAnd we did, Lydia,â€ I said. â€œWe really did. We had a hell of a time.â€ I stood, kissed her cheek, and wished her a good night.
There is much more to this enchanting novel than Iâ€™ve let on, so please, go buy a copy. Float down Schaffertâ€™s rabbit hole. Settle into a room in this small townâ€™s B&B, the one where Muscatine ends up, scribbling. Take a walk down the path to the Crippled Eighty, and be sure to pilfer a couple low-hanging peaches on the way. Come on. I dare you.
Dawn West (b. 1987) reads, writes, and eats falafel in Ohio.