There is no great mystery at the heart of Jennifer LoveGrove’s debut novel. No simple explanation for the way its pages turn, relentlessly.
Emily’s story is a quiet story, the ground beneath her feet shifting subtly, though inexorably.
In relaying her story to readers, Jennifer LoveGrove makes a series of almost unrecognizable decisions to pull hearts and minds into her protagonist’s world.
It begins, strangely enough, in what feels like the present, but which is told in the past tense.
“The first line was small, timid, and red. I was scared, but it was the only way through. I breathed deeply and drew the line longer, pushed harder, and it bloomed.”
Emily’s cutting might distance readers; they might end up on the other side of the line she draws in blood.
(Bleak tales of girlhood abound: readers might be impatient.)
But there is something winning about her expression of vulnerability twinned with determination.
“Someone was listening. I shoved my tools in the drawer and switched off the lamp. I sat still and silent, trying not to move or even breath, willing myself invisible.”
While Emily holds her breath, however, the narrative moves on, further into the past: a clearly defined past, a time when Emily “was a little girl”.
And, in just a few pages, the narrative shifts into the present tense to relay those events of the past.
This is a technical observation, but Jennifer LoveGrove makes the shift, out of first-person narration and out of the past tense, so that it seems effortless for readers.
What is understood is that this other time feels vivid and alive for Emily, as she looks back upon it, and it is this sense of vitality which propels the narrative.
It also mitigates the weight of the challenges that Emily faces (faced) in those younger years.
“When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said what everybody else said: a Full-Time Pioneer. That’s what we were all supposed to be – obedient brothers and sisters who spent all their time going from house to house, knocking on doors, spreading the Armageddon virus. The people would smile and node in approval, at me, then at my parents, then back at me, their joyous, too-bright heads bobbing in a sea of Pharisees.”
It is no accident that this explanation appears immediately following Emily’s decision to sit and will herself invisible.
This confidence shared with readers – the line of blood, shaped in an ‘L’ – stands in contrast with the approved and smiling Emily, the young girl who was everything that she was expected to be.
The pressures that Emily faces (faced) in her family, headed by her father, a devout Jehovah Witness, are connected to that line of blood.
The connection is literal (through her family ties) and figurative, for the author does not draw lines and arrows in the text; structurally, readers make the connection at the beginning of the novel, but it is only through an understanding of Emily’s family life that readers begin to assemble that construct.
“Although I was alone, it reminded me of being at the Kingdom Hall. While the elders preached peace and empathy from the podium, everyone sat and speculated as to who would be the next to be disfellowshipped. Glances darted from behind folded Watchtowers, and every nudge implied knowledge of someone’s wrongdoing.”
Emily is surrounded by contradictions and dishonesties, but her own voice is sincere. The most authentic element of her character, however, is her confusion, her struggle to rationalize her family’s avowal of a doctrine based on love and compassion with her personal experience of judgement and intolerance.
Paradoxically, one of the strongest elements of Emily’s characterization is not her individual identity (which makes sense, given that she is struggling with her identity) but her relationship with her sister, Lenora.
“Emily looks two seats down at her sister. She wears the black felt hat with white stitching – called a cloche – that Uncle Tyler gave her last month. She’s staring straight ahead, listening to the talk, following along with the scripture. Lenora looks like her sister, the same as she always does. She doesn’t look like a worldly person, like someone who would smoke and swear and hang around with boys in leather jackets and girls in black lipstick.”
That early shift into third-person narration allows for a seemingly more evaluative, distanced narrative voice. Some later Emily, like readers, is looking back at this younger Emily, who is trying to make sense of the changes that she sees in her sister.
As the novel continues, Emily is watching how the people she loves walk (the title is drawn from a hymn sung in the Hall), trying to find her own path when nothing is as clear as black-and-white stitching.
Like the novels of Stacey May Fowles, Jessica Westhead, Michael Hingston and Zoe Whittall, Jennifer LoveGrove pulls readers into a fictional world which manages to be both fresh and familiar at the same time.
Watch How We Walk is a compelling tale of a young girl who came-of-age and comes-of-age: a story of becoming and un-becoming. An ordinary story that moves.