- - Tuesday, July 9, 2019



By Lila Savage

Alfred A Knopf, $24, 176 pages

Before writing her first novel “Say, Say, Say,” Lila Savage spent nearly a decade employed as a caregiver. This work informs her novel, which is about the experiences and thoughts of a caregiver who looks after Jill, a woman in her 60s who has suffered devastating brain injuries in a car accident.

Jill can no longer interact with others except with irritation and blows when they annoy her by, for example, dressing her or cleaning her up. She compulsively performs tasks such as washing a plastic doll, folding towels, or turning the taps on and off. She is mostly incommunicative, except in desperate repeated utterances like “I have nothing!” or “Say, say, say.”

Ella is hired by Jill’s husband Bryn to help him care for Jill, partly by giving him breaks from this daunting task so that he can marshal the strength to carry on despite his grief.

But what about hired caregivers such as Ella: How do they deal with the mental and physical tragedies they must cope with? Unlike family members such as Bryn, they have no fond memories of their charges or family obligations to them before the disasters that made them dependent on others for all their needs, One of the many wonders of this novel is Lila Savage’s anatomy of how caregivers respond to the issues they face and how they cope, especially looking after people like Jill, who has no hope of improvement.

In Ella’s case, she “had learned to step in and out of grief, to sample it on demand. She didn’t seek to block it out entirely because the poignancy was among the few rewards of the job. It was a strange way to make a living: the slow creep of hours, the tedium of domesticity and isolation, morning talk shows bleeding into drowsy afternoon soaps, all pierced with looming mortality and surreal delusions. She would succumb to the boredom and drift, as though submerged in a lake … and then something would compel her to burst through the surface and confront the frailty and sorrow and humiliation of decline. For a moment, she would be fully present in this sadness, porous in her empathy. It was almost unbearable, but at the same time it seemed like a gift, to feel so much.”

Such an analysis could not be adequately conveyed in a manual on caregiving, nor even a religious essay on caritas. Only fiction can array it in all its brilliant sunset colors and dun clouds — the frustrations constantly present, often hiding the satisfactions; the dullness pierced by shafts of disgust or lit with flares of admiration for suffering and devotion.

The foregoing may suggest that “Say, Say, Say” is a painful book to read. But while it certainly focuses on painful matters, it is intellectually and emotionally gripping because it exposes new facets of the experience to the light. It is also inspiring because it takes readers to a place where they can empathize with Jill, for suffering the accident that stole so many years of her life; with Bryn because the woman he loved was utterly transformed yet he loves her still, and with Ella, who invests so much in her caregiving role that it changes the ways she thinks about her past, her art, and especially about her relationship with her girlfriend Alix.

Again, none of these effects could have been achieved except by fiction — as D.H. Lawrence put it, “the one bright book of life” — the one tool we have for talking about the minutiae of experience and emotion and having others feel it, too.

Lila Savage brings wonderful insight into her portrait of Ella who “longed to be good,” who wonders “what bits of her psyche were herself and what bits were scar tissue.” Her novel is driven by her characterization of this meditative central character. Jill, too, is beautifully drawn, shown always busy at maddeningly irritating and pointless tasks, arbitrarily beating off help and care, yet also always as the wreck of a woman, who has lost everything that made her a beloved wife, mother, social worker.

The novel is full of incidents, too. Some involve Jill, but others are Ella’s recollections and musings on events in her own life. These incidents aren’t shaped into a conventional unfolding plot but form a kind of river of episodes and commentary that carries readers forward on a flow of vivid and entrancing prose. “Say, Say, Say” is a truly memorable novel: Unusual in its topic, perceptive in its commentary and edifying in its humanity.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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