Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Yorker Short Fiction - "She’s the One"

"She's the One" centers around Ally, a young English woman who finds her life upset by the suicide of her brother.  While living at home and working at a writer's center, she meets Hilda, an initially unlikable Canadian in her fifties who is a student in a week-long course at the writer's center.  The two develop a relationship wherein Ally is able to find comfort in Hilda's simple cottage.  The story ends with an exchange between Ally and her dead brother's ex-girlfriend, Yvonne.

Tessa Hadley shows restraint from the first line, "The winter after her brother killed himself, Ally got a job at a writers’ center near her parents’ house, helping out with admin in the office."  A flashier opener would have ended after the word "center" and created a succinct and punchy first line.  But Hadley decides to give us a lot of information instead, utilizing a sort of breezy voice.  Ally's brother killed himself.  Ally works at a writer's center.  It's near her parents house, so she probably lives at home.  She does administrative work in the office, so you know she's not a writing instructor or even an instructor's assistant.  She's low man on the totem pole at a place that's pretty low on the career ladder to begin with.  All that information in a first sentence that gives us something to draw us in (suicide!) but not without giving us a pretty good character sketch in the process.

Hilda's home life is difficult.  Her mother struggles to get over Ally's brother's death, essentially living in the past by wearing her son's old clothes under her own.  In fact, all of the scenes at Ally's home give a sense of past, the weight of the past, the grip of the past on the present, the inability or unwillingness of people to escape the past.

Hilda, on the other hand, offers something completely different.  Hilda has given up on her novel, saying that it has "died."  The novel had been based on an incident from Hilda's youth, revolving around the 60's, a guitar player, her mother and a song.  Hilda's mother uses the song as an emotional crutch as she gets older, believing the song to be about her.  But it isn't.  The song is about Hilda.  And the shame of it, the delusion it causes in her mother, it is a poison.  So as she tries to write the novel she wraps herself in the era, trying to recreate it on the page.  And it just dies.  It leaves nothing behind but failure. And with the death of the novel comes Hilda's freedom from her past.

Hilda offers Ally an escape from the weight of the past.  Hilda lives completely in the present.  She is about action and moving forward and is a nice counter to Ally's mother.

The encounter with Yvonne at the end of the story is excellent, well-written, exciting.  Yvonne, in a fit of anger, throws the ring Ally's brother had given her into the river.  Realizing what she's done, she begins to freak out, begging Ally to help her get the ring back.  Yvonne isn't ready to let go yet.  She thought she was, but she isn't.  Ally goes after the ring, not because she wants it, but to prove her distance from the "hysterical" past.

The last paragraph is a fantastic metaphor for moving on, seeing an opportunity and snatching it up.

"She's The One" was written by Tessa Hadley and published in the March 23rd issue of The New Yorker.

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