Reviewed by Sarah Fortna
From the start, The Ancestry of Objects is a mysterious web of words. It is not the type of mystery that you would find in a book about a crime or murder, however. Instead, the book is engaged in trying to determine how a person is made up. As someone who is studying to become a therapist, I am fascinated from a mental health perspective by the way the book explored the mind of its narrator. The book deals with the life of a young woman whose life is rife with so much depression and suicidality that the distinction between her and her disorder is almost impossible to pinpoint at times. But beyond her depression, she is a person, filled with hopes and desires and relationships with the world as complex as anyone can have. I think the book is important because it can empower people who have seen themselves as their disorder to look at themselves in a new way and find freedom from the stereotypes that may have defined them for so long.
The Ancestry of Objects is about a woman entombed in the loveless house she grew up in. It is about a person whose depth of wanting to die is so strong that her life is like a limbo between life and death–ghostlike. She spends her days staring at the ceiling and the walls and the things that belonged to her grandparents, who raised her to a deep shame about her own humanity. Into this desolate existence comes David. Because the book focuses on someone whose mind is lost in loneliness and madness, it takes only one connection to burst for life into a chaotic wonder so different from what she has known. David is a married man whose wife has gone away on a trip and left him to his own devices. In the same way that the narrator’s character is told without the empty stereotypes typically seen in characters with mental illnesses, David is written with humanity, and he is not merely a decrepit man having an affair, but is instead himself a complicated character. As they spend more time together, the narrator’s world begins to morph itself from the emptiness it held before into the shape of David. Here it becomes tricky to try to label her connection with David as healthy or unhealthy. The connection takes her from a pale existence to something vibrant and erotic, but at the same time it does not release her. With the return of David’s spouse, the hollowness consumes her from every object he has touched and every space he has occupied. In the rest of the book, the reader must determine whether a transformation has occurred to make this new emptiness bearable.
Outside of the interest the book has artistically, it is fascinating from the perspective of mental health. The author deals with mental illness in a unique way that acknowledges the deep rooted agony the character experiences, while not discounting her own uniqueness as an individual. The book also deals with religion and the results that some fundamentalist traditions can have on individuals. Woven throughout the story are trinkets of a past influence of people rearing a child to turn fear and hatred toward herself. The book shows how this sort of approach to the world contributed to and worsened the depression of the narrator.
The Ancestry of Objects reads in some ways like modern/postmodern authors such as Katherine Anne Porter and Virginia Wolfe, but the language used makes it much more contemporary. It is an updated version of the sort of stream of consciousness tradition that is particularly attributed to James Joyce. Overall, the book is similar to Sylvia Plath in its dealing with mental health issues in a psychological and literary fashion.
The strongest aspects of the book from a literary point of view are its unique use of language and rejection of the typical format of fiction. Every single sentence is a sentence previously unknown to the world. Just in the same way that the author refuses to use stereotypes for her characters, she also defies the typical way in which a novella is written. The book is divided into sections of maybe one or two pages, each of which comprises a set of thoughts or, in some cases, one solitary thought contained in a sentence. Because the author chooses to write in such a unique fashion, she is not constrained to the typical form of a book chapter, but flows instead from sentence to sentence, from image to image, from story to story.
I recommend The Ancestry of Objects to anyone who is interested in literary fiction but not afraid to get their hands dirty. It is contemporary literary fiction at its best, an example of the mad beauty that a book can capture. The book is a phenomenal example of psychology-based literature with language beautiful enough to die for.
At once a spectacular speculation on the hazy distinction between emptiness and death and a life-defying erotic romance, The Ancestry of Objects will pull its readers past their depth and leave them gasping for air but desperate to come back for more.