Small Expectations

Lucy Ellmann is a frustrating writer. Her prose style can be annoying, since it’s the written equivalent of a high-pitched whine by someone in love with her own misery. At times, her showy despair calls to mind a child in art class, drawing apocalyptic horrors that send the teacher running for help. She has a strong comic flair, though, and the courage to write exactly as she pleases. For example: it’s not every day that someone weaves a novel around a frumpy woman, drained of hope, with neither friends nor the least hint of drama in her life, and few feelings left beyond a dull sexual hunger. Yet such women obviously exist, and deserve their day in fiction. And fiction is a stronger art for exploring them.

Eloïse, the heroine of Man or Mango?, lives alone in a cottage in England, eats frozen Indian food, and dreads contact with strangers. About her history we know little, except that two generations ago her Jewish grandmother, then a baby, was whisked out of an unnamed country to set sail for Ellis Island. Despite this heroic beginning, the grandmother did not turn out wise or admirable; instead, she’s an irritating tyrant “who hates blacks, Catholics and Arabs.” Also—and here, right away, we see Ellmann’s indifference to realistic plotting—it turns out that on that fateful day when she emigrated, the grandmother-baby got on the wrong boat. Instead of New York, she sailed into the Irish backwater of Connemara, and ended up raising a British son.

The early, and far and away the best, chapters of Man or Mango? are a knowing depiction of severe depression, somehow made funny. Eloïse’s beloved mother died too young of cancer, and her father lost hope and committed suicide a few years later, condemning her to an “unappeasable sadness.” Emotionally speaking, the adult Eloïse has much in common with a wounded animal, separated from the herd, limping and wheezing and preparing to give up. Her stagnant daily routine seems less like a life than a long wait for death. In conveying the chaos of Eloïse’s mind, Ellmann takes some mild experimental risks—shifting from first to third person, sprinkling in a to-do list that Eloïse writes to herself (most challenging task:staying out of bed). The eye here for paranoia, guilt, and self-hatred is expert, and the style has a nice, improvised ease. Eloïse fantasizes that the world has sent her a rejection letter:

Dear Madam,

It has recently come to our attention here at the Inland Revenue that you are a bad girl, that you were bad to your parents and gradually, throughout the many years of your sorry existence, you have managed to alienate and/or injure everyone with whom you have come into contact, including animals and even inanimate objects.

She grieves for her parents, and blames herself for their death.

I killed them. I stood by and watched them decay and did nothing. Watched, while the doctors dickered with my mother’s body until…

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