Friday, November 2, 2007

REVIEW: Chatter, by Perrin Ireland

Published: October 23, 2007. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Chatter, the new novel by Perrin Ireland, is a clever, unusual novel about anxiety and instability in the post-9/11 world, and one anxious woman in particular. Sarah is an average, affluent middle-aged woman married to Michael, who has an adult daughter named Lisa and a varied, somewhat cloudy past. Sarah is his second wife and as the story opens Camila, an attractive young woman claiming to be his daughter, comes into their lives.

Chatter, after its title, is written almost entirely in dialogue. Scattershot dialogue, interrupted dialogue, back-and-forths full of missed connections and misunderstanding. Questions arise that are never answered; ambiguities are formed and never clarified. The story unfolds slowly at first then rapidly picks up steam in the second part, as Camila enters the picture along with her mother, Magdalena. Sarah, fearful that Michael will leave her for his former lover, obsesses about the two women as she deals with her friend's sickness and other complications.

It's a pretty good book. The dialogue and the relationships are crisp and believable. Ireland does a great job of capturing the way people talk- both how they communicate and miscommunicate. Sarah is a very likable character and I grew to care about her as the book went on. She tries to manage her own life and care for her friend all the while juggling her constant worry that her bond with her husband isn't strong enough to withstand guilt and an old girlfriend, and her fear is honest, raw and believable.

Ireland ups the ante on Sarah's anxiety by creating a background hum of fear using references to terrorism, 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Whenever she needs a detail to round out a scene, it'll be a Muslim praying, or Arabic overheard on the radio, or posters that remind a character of the missing-person notices after 9/11. It's an effective, if heavy-handed, way to echo and amplify Sarah's feelings. I got the point, but sometimes it was a little much. Even the title is a double entendre, a reference to the style of the narrative and to terrorism.

Despite this, I liked the book very much; what started out as ordinary turned into a very compelling take on friendship, family and love as it went along. I liked the way Ireland portrays and push-and-pull of marriage, the way Sarah and Michael's relationship ebbs and flows, and the gentle ways she brings her heroine down to earth. The ending is beautiful and optimistic. The missed connections and unanswered questions add depth as we learn about the characters through both what they want to know and what they don't want to tell. Lots of questions remain unsettled but overall it was a great read and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a smart page-turner on society and relationships.