The Coffins of Little Hope
by Timothy Schaffert
Unbridled Books, 2011
262 pages (hardcover)
“I attend many funerals, as do many of the death merchants, and we all lurk in a back pew, in black and feathers, perched like carrion.” For Essie Myles, the 83-year-old obituary writer for the County Paragraph, the small-town newspaper started by her father, Death is a familiar. Not only is she one of the “death merchants,” along with the undertaker, the desairologist (beautician to the dead), the organist, the florist, and the cemetery caretaker, but she is also personally acquainted with tragedy.
Her mother died giving birth to her. She buried two husbands. Her son and daughter-in-law died in a car accident. She and her grandson, Doc, have raised her great-granddaughter, Tiff, because Tiff’s mother (and Essie’s granddaughter) abandoned her. So though she is accusing of profiting from the loss of others, though she gets letters addressed to Morticia or Vampira, Essie keeps writing obits, keeps asking the grieving families “What will you remember most?,” keeps perching in that back pew with the rest of her black-clad peers to hear a few words about the deceased—and then grab a sandwich and a cup of tea in the church hall.
Never has a narrator been so charmingly macabre as Timothy Schaffert has given us in his latest novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. And he takes only a few pages to establish how utterly natural it is that Great-Grandma “Vampira” Essie have a role to play in the telling of the latest town tragedy, the abduction of little Lenore.
Lenore’s mother, Daisy, has become a sensation after reporting her daughter’s disappearance. Problem is, the police can find no evidence that the little girl ever existed. The town is soon divided into people who believe Daisy’s story about the abduction, people who believe Daisy killed Lenore herself, and people who believe Daisy simply made up the little girl and her disappearance because she wanted the attention. Essie has an opinion, but perhaps, as in her obituaries, she finds it more gracious to look beyond the subject’s faults and tell a somewhat revised life story, if only for the sake of the survivors.
So what really happened to Lenore, if she exists? How can the admittedly dying town be so obviously eager to profit from Daisy’s horrific story? (Essie observes: “One thing I’ve had to discover anew over and over again in my many, many years: a small town has only the illusion of a devoted and close-knit family. None of us are family. We are all deeply alien, one to the other.”)
And what is the connection between the disappearance of a child and the publication of a highly anticipated novel? Essie, Doc, Tiff, Daisy, and—supposedly—Lenore are all fans of the wildly-popular and gothic Miranda and Desiree series (think Harry Potter), and The Coffins of Little Hope, the eleventh and final Miranda-and-Desiree book, is said to answer a lot of lingering questions about the past and future of the two sisters who have been locked away at Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misguided Girls. It’s a Myles family secret that part of the huge print run of the book is being printed on their newspaper’s presses, and not a word of the story must leak before publication day.
Through Essie’s personality, Schaffert tells his dark tale with a light, almost comic touch. He effortlessly captures the small intimacies of daily life. And his prose is glorious, especially when calling attention to the beauty in what we normally see as scenes of disorder or decay. A favorite example:
A cloud of humidity near the orchard was indistinguishable from the swarms of gnats. We stepped from Trevor’s car, and to the trees, and we collected the peaches in pillowcases. Earlier in the summer, Tiff had come to the farm to tie blue and pink and yellow ribbons to the branches. Tiny fragments of broken mirror were attached to the ribbons, and when they spun in the wind, sunlight sparked against the glass, to frighten off the squirrels that would otherwise eat the peaches right on the tree, right off the stems, down to the stones. Many of the nearly white peaches had already fallen to the ground, the humid, sugary scent drawing flies, beautiful ones, fat flies with iridescent golden backs like scarabs.
Essie, explaining why she uses an old typewriter, clacking and dinging away and leaving black ink all over her fingers, declares, “What good is an obituary if it can be written so peaceably, so undisturbingly, in the dark of night?” Schaffert’s novel is a great obit, disturbingly written, that asks each bereft character, “What will you remember most?” It doesn’t try to contain the lives of its characters, but only touches on the intersections of their life experiences as viewed through the long lens of memory. And like a good obit, it kindles in the reader a regret that time passes quickly and a longing for the now-sealed answers to our questions.
This review is cross-posted at mindywithrow.com.