It’s a warm summer night. Three girls are finishing the late shift at the neighbourhood ice cream parlour – but before they close up shop, two men take them hostage. They lock the doors, tie the girls up, and set the shop on fire before disappearing into the night.
This is the first chapter of See How Small. It packs a wallop.
The rest of the novel explores the mystery of what it means to be haunted – by a bad choice, by loss, by mystery, by the ghosts of lost loved ones.
See How Small unfurls through a huge range of viewpoints: the girls’ mother, the regretful getaway driver, a reporter covering the story, a fire fighter who feels his way into the ice cream parlour as it burns. Years pass in a matter of pages and a series of vignettes. The result is a patchwork storyline, a jigsaw puzzle slowly coming together to reveal a portrait of a community.
The girls themselves hover at the edges, equal parts ghost and Greek chorus – narrating the action, appearing in their mother’s dreams, reliving their own memories. They embody the idea of straining to hear a voice in an empty house, remembering someone so intensely that they remain a part of you. Look at the things that keep us apart, the girls whisper. See how small they are?
The best part of the novel, by far, is Blackwood’s prose – deep and cool, full of the sort of imagery and phrases you reread three or four times before moving on.
When it comes down to it, the poetic language of this novel is probably its strongest feature. The plot saunters, the viewpoint flits from character to character without ever really settling down, and the secret at the heart of the conflict is never revealed. Who were the men who broke into the ice cream shop? What is the meaning behind the cruel, abrupt evening?
We never find out, and maybe that’s the point. All the same, I keep going back and forth on whether that was the right choice – because part of me feels cheated out of a conclusion.
I liked this book quite a bit – it was unsettling and beautiful in a lot of ways. But sometimes perfectly good books don’t hit you in the sternum like you hope they will. Ultimately I felt cheated at the end, when the central mystery is left unsolved, unfigured. It felt like the novel wound up to punch me in the chest and then forgot why it had its hands up.
The header image is a detail taken from the UK paperback edition, found on 4th Estate.