Published by Pushkin Press on August 16 2016
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Miriam hasn't left her house in three years, and cannot raise her voice above a whisper. But today she has had enough, and is finally ready to rejoin the outside world.
Meanwhile, Ralph has made the mistake of opening a closet door, only to discover with a shock that his wife Sadie doesn't love him, and never has. And so he decides to run away.
Miriam and Ralph's chance meeting in a wood during stormy weather marks the beginning of an amusing, restorative friendship, while Sadie takes a break from Twitter to embark on an intriguing adventure of her own. As their collective story unfolds, each of them seeks to better understand the objects of their affection, and their own hearts, timidly refusing to stand still and accept the chaos life throws at them. Filled with wit and sparkling prose, Whispers Through a Megaphone explores our attempts to meaningfully connect with ourselves and others, in an often deafening world - when sometimes all we need is a bit of silence.
I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction 2016, Rachel Elliott’s début novel is deserving of every word of praise. ‘Whispers Through A Megaphone’ doesn’t just deserve to be shouted about – it needs to be yelled.
Miriam is a recluse, but only recently is she a reluctant one. Anxious, timid, and speaking in a literal whisper, years of cruel dominance by a mother with mental health issues have taken their toll. Already beaten down by years of abuse and manipulation, when she’s attacked in a local woods it pushes her over the edge causing her severe agoraphobia. Now, after three years of only leaving her house as far as her garden, she’s grabbing the bull by the horns and making the brave step of getting on with her life.
Ralph is a discontented soul: trapped in a job he never wanted, a contemptuous marriage, and with twin sons who he just can’t seem to connect with, he’s definitely struggling. A chance discovery forces his hand and he leaves it all behind, choosing to live in a hut in the woods. It’s here that his and Miriam’s paths cross, giving rise to a genuine, if a little unhinged, relationship that sees the pair through their individual journeys of self-discovery.
What Rachel Elliott has created here, within ‘Whispers Through A Megaphone‘, is something truly special. Tightly honed characters weave together effortlessly as the plot unfolds, giving a natural, realistic feeling to the novel. Miriam’s pain and confusion are deftly depicted through her (often argumentative) internal monologues. Elliott’s narrative style is strongest here as Miriam dips in and out of her past as her mind wanders – moments of her past triggered by events in her present – and it never feels forced. Ralph’s arc is naturally more dependent on those around him, but his exasperation at his situation is just as prominent as Miriam’s anxiety. Many a time, two-hander narratives struggle to find a balance between the characters, but Elliott never gives one prominence over the other, and their eventual meeting at the end of the first third of the novel is an unpredictable joy.
The focus on Ralph and Miriam doesn’t mean that the supporting characters are left wanting, as Elliott has developed them as deeply as her central pairing. In fact, I’d say their progression is probably stronger, and their journeys more realistic, especially when it comes to Sadie, Ralph’s seemingly cold-hearted and unloving wife. Her tale of lost opportunity and regrets could possibly carry a novel on it’s own, and in ‘Whispers Through A Megaphone‘ neatly drives these main themes, while emphasising that there are always two sides to a story. Sadie’s over-reliance on social media to communicate her feelings or live her life is depicted wonderfully through snippets of her twitter convos, mostly with complete strangers. These asides could derail the regular narrative, but in Elliott’s hands are simply another character voice.
Elliot’s turn of phrase throughout the novel is beautiful, and poignant, with elements of anger and vitriol throw in for good measure. It’s also incredibly funny. Think of any of the great Mike Leigh’s early films (especially the awesome Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies) and combine it with the warm wit and astuteness of the (much missed) Victoria Wood and you have Rachel Elliott in a nutshell.
‘Whispers Through A Megaphone‘ is much more than a glance at the human condition. It’s a mirror for our own insecurities and failings, and a much needed dose of satire to boot.
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