Playwright Victor Lodato's debut novel has just made the search for the best U.S. novel of 2009 much, much simpler. With its utterly captivating voice, brisk plot and timely but lasting philosophical investigations, Mathilda Savitch is one of the strongest debut novels to arrive in decades. If the world is as just and rewarding as the fierce little Mathilda wants it to be, the Pulitzer and Oprah will let her have her say. And once Mathilda starts talking, few of us will want her to stop.
Mathilda is a devious, loquacious 12-year-old, thrust toward maturity by her changing body and the sudden, violent death of her 17-year-old sister, Helene. In a single day, a family of two college professors and their daughters is torn asunder. Or so it originally seems. Just as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo have defined the American generations that grew up in the nuclear shadow, Lodato here gives us the American generation raised in the shadows of the War(s) on Terror. Mathilda's childhood memories of 9/11 and the desert war du jour get reshuffled by a fictitious homeland bombing that brings loss to the doorstep of an already grieving household.
From its opening line, Mathilda Savitch is a novel of voice. One year after Helene's violent death, Mathilda tells herself and/or us: "I want to be awful." The skills with dialogue that have made Lodato an accomplished playwright are here matched with a thorough immersion into the layered and contested world of young girls.
These ingredients are all shaken up, willfully, by the irresistibility of Mathilda's alternately demanding and generous character. Regarding the daily fictions inside their shattered house, she says, "Ma doesn't smoke any more, that's the story we're supposed to believe. ... Ma doesn't drink either, if you want to have the whole blanket over your head."
When she feeds fish in an aquarium, she watches them "vacuum up the flakes with their kissy little o-mouths." Her dual investigation of her sister's death and her budding sexuality has her creeping around "with my stupid breath heh-heh-hehing like a sweaty dog."
Part poet, part playwright and all storyteller, Lodato dynamically advances Mathilda's quest for knowledge and/or maturity. Each of the short, lively chapters steadily raises the stakes. This assured and emotionally pitch-perfect novel investigates survivor guilt, love, families, loyalty, gender, sexuality and how much we can really know another person, any person.
The two biggest plot transformations are handled so superbly that only one of them can be disclosed. For a few pages, the novel's seemingly abrupt immersion into the War on Terror might appear too overtly portentous, but Lodato shouldn't be convicted of guilt by association. Other U.S. writers, such as Jay McInerney and Jonathan Safran Foer, rushed to write about 9/11 too quickly. Instead, Lodato concentrates on a fictional, media-saturated bombing to invite important connections between private and public suffering. Mathilda's grieving parents risk falling out of love and abdicating parental responsibility, while neighbours, Mathilda and her friends test the limits of tolerance, forgiveness and self-appraisal.
The voice, social relevance, exuberance and varied accuracy of this novel all make it very strong; when its emotional and social wisdom get delivered through Mathilda's unforgettable voice, we're in the grip of a truly great novel.
Mathilda straddles the world of children and adults, still remembering the names of her toys, yet adapting to menstruation and the collision of her unpredictable desires for sexual exploration with clear and often one-sided gender messages. She describes her emotional confusion as "two thoughts for the price of one," but also wallops us with the starkly accurate "not everything in your heart makes it to your mouth."
The disempowerment of child narrators generally makes them a tough sell, but Lodato combines the intimacy of the first person with the isolation and removal of grief. He's also shrewd to write from the younger sister's perspective. The absent Helene is part ghost and part guide to adolescence as Mathilda finds her caches of hidden love letters and tries to hack into her still lingering e-mail account.
Only one issue at all diminishes this superb and memorable novel. Sociologically and emotionally, Lodato is accurate to write in the voice of a contemporary tween who regularly confuses her verb tenses. For Mathilda, the past and the present lack clear borders. At times, however, the reader would prefer to see and hear her vibrant life without having to first decode her verb tenses.
Your head, heart and ear have got to meet Mathilda Savitch.
Darryl Whetter's most recent book is the bicycle odyssey The Push & the Pull. He teaches creative writing at Dalhousie University.