I first heard the name Elizabeth Reeder about 12 years ago when I took a creative writing night course at Strathclyde Uni. While our class were writing our rehashed tales of childhood memories, under the excellent tutelage of one David Pettigrew, we would often wonder what the American that we could sometimes hear teaching through the wall would say about out fledgling tales of life in Scotland.
Over the years her name kept appearing on posters for spoken word nights, or in emails fired around the Faculty of Arts at Glasgow Uni. Being interested in books, hers is a name that I would always notice. So, with out really thinking about it, I’ve been awaiting Reeder’s debut novel for some time. That novel is now here and is called Ramshackle, a tale of a young woman’s search to uncover familial mysteries about her missing father and the older woman who used to live next door.
Set in suburban Chicago, the central character is the teenager Roe Davis, whose family are just normal enough to avoid any accusations of kookiness. The disappearance of her father leads her to begin to uncover those secrets that adults keep and the children have yet to learn, which is as good a definition of growing up as I can think of. Reeder captures the complexity of these formative years and condenses it over a weekend.
Having heard Elizabeth read at events on a few occasions over the years it was the rhythm and cadence of her voice I heard as I read through the novel, and this was, at the beginning, a little off putting. But actually her voice soon became that of Roe and there was a consistency in Roe’s narration that made the novel and those who reside there believable. This is a case of a writer inhabiting all her characters, knowing who they were, where they had been, and, most aptly in this case, where they were going.
Ramshackle begins with the disappearance of Roe’s father, something that initially provokes apathy in the rest of the family as this is not the first time he has taken a fatherly time out. But soon it becomes apparent that this is not just a night away from responsibility, and Roe’s Aunt Linden and Uncle Duncan arrive to provide very different ideas of comfort and support. Roe’s father was a locksmith and there are lots of allusions to Roe having to unlock various secrets about her family if she is to discover where her father is, or even why he has gone. Often more level headed than the adults there to support her, this is only one more complexity that Roe is having to deal with, but as she discovers things about her father, she also finds a lot out about herself and what she is capable of.
Reeder’s novel is also a reminder that while people need to be protected at all ages, the teenage years are thought to be formative for a reason, the time when things can go incredibly right or dreadfully wrong. Roe is at that time when she is desperate to become an ‘adult’ without yet realising that ‘adult’ is about as abstract a concept as there is. The secondary characters of Quiz, Linden, Duncan and Jess are vital parts of Roe’s story, but it is her absent father that is most important. He is portrayed as a troubled man who seems to have brought up an intelligent and charismatic daughter despite being absent either in mind or body. As a fan of John Hughes 80s movies, there is something in Roe of the apparently wise beyond her years characters that Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy would play. Although she feels no bitterness towards her father, and obviously adores him, Roe has the independence of someone who has mainly raised herself and may even have been expecting such a day.
As I came to the end of the novel I felt that familiar sadness that I was so going to leave these people, and that’s my only real complaint. The characters are rich and quirky enough to want to live with over more than a weekend. I found myself wishing for a John Irving style, or at least length, of novel so I could spend more time with Roe, Linden and Quiz. Reeder has assembled a great gang and I wanted more. But I guess if you leave them wanting more then that’s not supposed to be a bad thing.
Ramshackle is a very American novel in that it once again places a teenager as the apparently smartest person in the room while never making them any less than engaging. I think this is down to the importance placed on the young adult in American culture. They are rarely patronised or stereotyped in comparison to other Western cultures, where attempts to write such characters result in unlikable smart arses or deeply unpleasant people. Of course there are exceptions on both sides, but America’s celebration of the teenager is one of its more appealing traits.I could give you hundreds of examples, but from James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, through Holden Caulfield to Ferris Bueller and more recently Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye in the criminally underrated 2005 film Brick, American writers and filmmakers have celebrated and understood that period in life rather than vilified or demonised it. There always seems to be hope at the end of even the darkest story, and I find that attractive. I’ll be very interested in what Elizabeth Reeder does next. Ramshackle feels like an introduction, if a long overdue one, but you get the feeling there’s a lot more to come and, if the writerly grapevine is telling the truth, that more should be with us sooner rather than later.