There is a power and resilience, and yes, even a verdant sense of hope to Emily Spurr’s debut novel, A Million Things, that will leave you in wonder at the immense capacity of connection, friendship and love to rescue a lonely and adrift life … or two of them.
But just as movingly, there is an aching sense of loss and sadness and a corrosive holding of secrets, the kind that eats away at the fabric of lives and leaves those caught in its hidden grasp unable to move on and make anything new or different of their lives.
That these two quite disparate sets of elements come together so affectingly well in this quietly unassuming and yet fearsomely emotive novel is testament to how well Spurr evokes the shared world of ten-year-old Rae and considerably older Lettie.
These two seemingly different but in the end remarkably similar people, who live next door to each other in suburban Melbourne, Australia but who might as well live a world apart for all their non-existent interactions, are both trying to keep the discovery of their own big secret at bay and fend off the intrusion of nosy people who are seeking to find out what it is that makes them so unknowable and removed.
They both need connection but neither of them is able to see, at first anyway, that what they crave and require deep down is so close they could reach out and touch it at any time; A Million Things tells the story of how these two lost and lonely souls finally come to know each other and how profound a difference it makes to their almost wholly isolated lives.
“You started cooking when we got home. Chopping carrots and onion, with the big heavy pot heating on the stove. But nothing went into it. When I came out from my room the butter had burned to the bottom, the carrots and onions sat in tiny cubes on the board and you sat on the bench staring out at the shed. The look on your face made my stomach hurt.
So I don’t think about that.” (Rae, P. 27)
Rae is as poignantly written a character as you are ever likely to come across in any novel.
Having essentially had to look after herself all by herself as her mother drifts in and out, mostly out, of her maternal role due to, you suspect (though it’s never made clear), mental health issues, Rae is more than up to the task, on the surface at least, of assuming control over her life when her mother suddenly disappears from the scene.
Quite how this happens is best left to the reading, but suffice to say, it is now up to Rae to pay the bills, get the groceries, feed her beloved dog Splinter aka Splints, and to get herself to school and act like nothing at all is wrong.
It is a lot of weight to sit upon shoulders so young, all while guarding the kind of secret that should never be in the possession of anyone, let alone a child, but Rae seems to cope and cope well.
But appearances can be deceiving, especially to those caught in the centre of the picture being deceptively painted, and Spurr observes, with quiet insightful empathy, how Rae is actually not coping at all.
Sure, the lawn is mowed and pretty to keep pesky neighbours at bay, and Rae always turns up at school with a clean uniform and her homework all done, but in her quieter moments, which often occur in the dead of night when Rae is wide awake (a sign of the stress gnawing at her made-up picture of blissful domesticity), she is, as you might expect, a very sad, scared and worried little girl, one who has no one to stand in her corner with her.
Just over the fence sits Lettie, an elderly woman with a pretty big secret of her own.
Rae dismisses her as just an old busybody with nothing better to do than snipe and interfere, but when events conspire to bring them together, the tough but vulnerable girl realises that there is far more to her neighbour than she even suspected.
A Million Things brings these two characters together in the most understated but desperately needed of ways, showing in the process that we often have no idea what the people around are actually like and that we almost always leap to completely the wrong assumption about them.
As Rae and Lettie get to know each other, and help each other shoulder the hidden parts of their lives – in Rae’s case, this takes considerably longer than the revelation of her neighbour’s but then hers is amplified by her young age and vulnerability – the novel comes slowly (in the best possible) and beautifully alive, hope unfurling in direct opposition to every attempt to stifle it.
But then when you look hard at it, A Million Things is all about the idea of hope; after all, why would Rae and Lettie persist with their lives, with the maintenance and covering up of their secrets if somewhere, deep down, there wasn’t some lingering hope that things might get better.
“Lettie just shrugs and waits. She breaks out those biscuits again. The ones from the fancy shop in Seddon, sweet and also cheesy ones this time. She has some fruit too, which we eat for lunch to round out the biscuits. She even bought some pigs’ ears for Splinter. He lies pressed up against her legs and chews them into a slimy mess.” (P. 182)
Neither of them actually articulate this of course since they are, for all intents and purposes, in survival mode, all pretense otherwise aside, but hope remains somehow, only emerging slowly and in spits and sputters when they both let their guards enough to let the other in.
A Million Things is about how for the brutality and hardship of life, there can be times when love and connection come riding to the rescue, even when you don’t actively seek them out.
While neither Rae nor Lettie initially conceive of their nascent relationship as being life-changing in any way, and if we’re honest, the first time they interact is grudging at best, but as they get to know each other and are then there for each other in ways big and small, it becomes apparent that some kind of transformation is exactly what’s in the offing.
Gloriously and refreshingly though Spurr doesn’t bring this about in any kind of melodramatic or treacly sentimental way, allowing Rae and Lettie’s story to run its course in the most real and true but ultimately upliftingly hopeful manner, one which feels wholly possible and necessary.
A Million Things is a joy to read because for all its loss and pain and bleakness, there is hope, a reminder that love and connection are more affectingly powerful, and desperately crucial to happiness, that we ever give them credit for.