Book review: Meredith, alone by Claire Alexander

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

One of the biggest genres in book publishing at the moment is what you could loosely called redemptive literature.

Often inspirational and heartwarming in all the right places, the genre offers a chance for growth and change in a world where that is not always where a realistic option and where found families don’t usually magically rise up to create a community previously lacking and which turns out to be the making of the often quirky, always lonely and socially moribund protagonist.

It’s a particular favourite of this reviewer because the really good ones – think the hugely successful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird, and A Caravan Like a Canary, and I will include the subject of this review, Meredith, alone by Claire Alexander, in that number, don’t simple skim around the edges of broken humanity but wholly and empathetically in, taking on a very real and often profoundly affecting journey from brokenness to something not quite as broken.

That final phrase is important because while there is redemptive power at work in these novels, and it’s good for the heart and the soul, especially after two-plus years of pandemic when social isolation has been a real and debilitating thing for many people, it does not come at the expense of an honest examination of what it means to be human, and how trauma, pain and loss can have a violently enervating effect on our state of being.

” … I sign into StrengthInNumbers, the online support group I joined after Sadie emailed me a link with ‘CHECK THIS OUT!!!’ in the subject line. That was just one of her bright ideas. She has a lot of those, sending me links to new books or articles she hopes will give me the push I need to become a Normal Person again. She emails me reviews of new restaurants, texts me with Groupon deals for spa weekends and afternoon tea deals. Just in case, she writes. I delete them without reading them. I know Sadie means well, but I don’t want to spend my free time reading research papers on sicla anxiety disorder or books about agoraphobia by people with a string of random letters after their names.” (PP. 13-14)

This is very much in evidence in Alexander’s wondrously moving and insightfully thoughtful novel which does not pretend reinvention and healing are some sort of magic wand, the waving of which will make everything completely and miraculously better.

Especially when, like Glasgow-based Meredith, who lives alone in her home which she has not left for 1,214 days at the start of Meredith, alone, you have suffered a trauma so catastrophically awful that you feel your only option is to retreat to the safety and confines of your own home.

It is, in many ways, not a terrible existence.

Meredith is a whiz at ordering online, she has cat Fred for company, and superlative company he is too, and she works as a freelancer writer, a career which brings in sufficient funds to enable her to stay put and do her jigsaw puzzles and indulge in brilliantly good, and sometimes, therapeutic cooking and baking.

She is also far from being a Greta Garbo recluse, visited regularly by her devoted bestie Sadie, and her two kids on whom Meredith dotes, and as the book starts, by Tom, a man from a befriending charity, Holding Hands, that visits the housebound and the reclusive to ensure they stay in touch with the world.

Meredith is also part of an online forum for people with various kinds of mental health issues ( … it’s comforting to know I’m not the craziest person in the country”), StrengthInNumbers, where she’s in contact with Janie and Gary nd through which she meets Celeste who rapidly becomes one of her closest friends where she is given the rare privilege of visiting Meredith in her home.

(courtesy official Claire Alexander Twitter account)

So, Meredith is completely cut off from the world but she isn’t well, breaking out in panicky sweats whenever she contemplates venturing her bright red front door.

Alexander does a movingly exemplary job in Meredith, alone of establishing Meredith as a very real, normal person who has been blown off course, as so many of us are at one time or another, by a traumatic event.

We do find out what that event is, and it is as horrible as you might suspect, but while it’s central to why Meredith is the way she is, the novel concentrates in the main on the effect it has had on her, forcing her to flee from her family, the outside world and a once-vibrant life that include restaurant visits, weekends away with friends, the socially visible touchstones of any active life.

Crucially, and this really matters, Meredith, alone does not paint Meredith as some sort of broken soul whose life is an abject mess and who needs redemption just because; rather, it makes the vitally important point that while people like Meredith are lost and alone, they have not ceased to be valid or worthwhile human beings, and their pain, and its effect, are real and valid.

They just need to find their way back to the rest of the world in their own time, their own way and in a way which recognises that healing from trauma is neither linear nor easy and is a journey full as many detours as it is destination-reaching steps.

It’s that sensitivity of understanding, appreciation of what human brokenness is like and how hard healing can be, even when it starts to happen and you truly want it, that truly informs every last beautifully affecting page of Meredith, alone.

“‘Meredith, I get it. Really. I have days like that too.’

‘Really?’

‘For sure. Doesn’t everyone?’

I think about it. I’m not convinced everyone has days when they can only talk to their friends through a closed door, when they push biscuits wrapped in tinfoil through a letter box instead of presenting them on a nice plate. I don’t really believe that everyone doesn’t speak for an entire week or hobbles around their house like a person twice their age. But I appreciate his efforts to make me feel less of a nutcase.” (P. 217)

It hits home so emphatically that you feel every last searing moment of pain and anguish when memories resurface for Meredith, you experience an almost palpable elation when she manages to make small steps towards change, and they stick (and honestly even when they don’t, you’re thrilled the she tried) and you cry and laugh when Meredith does.

Meredith, alone is warm, touching, charming, sweet and horribly painful, a perfect articulating of what it feels like to have to retreat from the world because it too painful and dangerous to stay in it any longer but also what you undergo when the world comes to your door and hiding away inside is no longer the sanctuary it once was.

As protagonists go, Meredith is a delight – bright, open, self-aware, hidden away and groundedly real in ways that make your heart sing and your soul weep, a person who knows what the death of life can feel like but who, when signs of healing start to make their presence felt, is brave enough to seize the day and see where it takes her.

That doesn’t mean everything suddenly goes swimmingly well or healing comes in a finger-snapping second, because when is life that easy or accommodating, but little by little, things do get better in ways that feel believable and relatable with Meredith, alone never once pretending pain can be washed away in an instant nor that even in the most redemptive tale, that its increasing absence is instantaneously replaced by something better.

Life is a complicated messy business and Meredith, alone reflects that with moving profundity, burbling hope and comforting honesty, a fitting addition to the genre of redemptive literature which doesn’t pretend about anything and thus gives us a story of change that feel inspirationally real and uplifting in the most uplifting of ways.

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