Spirits (Having Flown)

What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel by Sarah Cornwell (Harper, $24.95, 275 pages)

What I Had Before

This is a novel that seemed to promise a good story. Unfortunately, the story was lost in the execution. The book involves two plot lines, the first about a young woman – Olivia Reed – who loses her nine-year-old bipolar son at Funtown Pier on the Jersey Shore. The second plot line involves her coming into contact – years earlier, with the supposed ghosts of her twin sisters that died at birth. This latter plot line caught my attention as I hoped it would offer some of the unique enjoyment found in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

The two disjointed stories, regrettably, come together to no apparent purpose. One reason is that Cornwell sacrifices the two plot lines for a third – the story of Olivia’s psychic and mentally troubled mother, Myla. This means that the narrative jumps awkwardly and often incoherently between present and past times. As greatly disappointing as this is, the reader learns early on that this is no ghost story. The supposed twin ghosts are in fact living young women (how it is that Olivia believed they were the spirits of her dead sisters is never made clear).

Cornwell may have potential as an author but in this debut novel she mixes bad and good writing. Her prose is often leaden as in this example:

The dorm is a high-rise with a view of the Hudson River. In the elevator, older boys look me up and down. I think I’d better be wild tonight: I could use a thrill to get out of my head after all the illuminations of the week. I study Cortney’s warped reflection in the elevator’s chrome wall and see not the flesh-and-blood girl I know she is, but the ghost staring back at me, and this gives me a little push, a little reignition. When the elevator stops and she gets out, we are mortal again, and I feel the loss and need a drink.

And sometimes she writes well as in these two examples:

They are seeing my mother move through the house, while I am seeing the house move through my mother. There is a sense of brokenness and insufficiency and then a sense of crushing loneliness. My mother turns around to look me in the eye and smiles a grim smile. She knows I am receiving her.

I make female friends rarely, but when I do, I find myself acting slightly different: bubblier or quieter or more intellectual, or less. These small calibrations wear me out; I am exhausted after spending time with women.

(Note that Cornwell uses dated words for a story set in modern times – illuminations, calibrations.)

What I Had Before I Had You may appeal to those who harbor intense, lifelong anger at a parent. These readers may identify in some way with the horribly dysfunctional relationship between Olivia and Myla. Yet I suspect that most will fail to connect with this strange, highly troubling tale.

About half way through the reading of this rather short novel, some readers will have figured out a logical conclusion; however, this would rest upon Myla’s being alive. No spoiler alert is needed, but Cornwell figures out a way to get to that conclusion despite the fact that Olivia’s mother is dead. It’s like watching someone pound a square peg into a round hole, and it is not satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on January 7, 2014.

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