In her remarkable debut novel, Last Things (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: $23), author Jenny Offill has done just that. Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Grace Davitt, constellates Grace, her science teacher father, her mystically inclined ornithologist mother, and her boy genius baby-sitter Edgar, in a narrative that gradually assumes shape and meaning just as the night sky would to the uninitiated student. Science, to Grace, has all the implications of religion: her mother takes daily summer walks to the lake, on the chance of seeing the monster she believes lives within it; her father parcels out facts like vitamin pills (Grace recounts, "Once, when my mother went away for a weekend, he read me an entire book about the evolution of squirrels"). Books define much of the Davitt's daily life. When Grace's teacher tells her it's wrong not to believe in God, Grace's father lectures to her from a book called, Know Your Constitution! Grace's own bible is the Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, a book bestowed on her by her mother that catalogues peculiarities such as spontaneous combustion and children born half-animal.
Grace's voice and character in Last Things is endearingly compelling and absolutely convincing. The back-cover comparison to Marilynne Robinson's college-popular Housekeeping is apt: Last Things has the same poetry of a novel written at ground level, the details not pop-culture specific (although there are those, too), but specific to the interest of a child. For the first half of the book, many statements begin with "My mother": "All summer, it never rained. My mother piled smooth stones in the backyard and called it a garden.... My mother said that stones were last things and would be around long after people were gone. Other last things were oceans, metal, and crows. I thought that if I filled a birdbath with seawater and dropped a coin in it, I might glimpse the end of the world. My mother said that this was a sentimental notion."
Because her mother is central to Grace's religious belief in order, her gradual dissolution leaves Grace anchorless. When her father is offered a television job, Grace and her mother leave on a road trip, eventually ending up in New Orleans, where Grace's mother was raised. But Grace's mother's attempts to recreate her life never latch onto anything practical: like the cosmic calendar in the spare room (a teaching tool created for Grace) she seems to expect she can simply close herself off and history will manifest. Instead, the money runs out, and the car is flooded in a rainstorm. On the way back, arguing in a putrid-smelling car, Grace and her mother stop at the Burning Man festival in the California desert, where Grace's mother picks up a pamphlet detailing suicide as an ecological imperative.
Grace's unspoken fears, her unnamable premonitions, not only propel the storyline, they lend the narrative a haunted, allegorical property, as if everything could be a symbol for something else: childhood's fear of ghosts as a manifestation of one's own guilt, perhaps, or the fear of seeing God's face frowning down from the clouds.
But there is no regret or sentimentality in the ending; Last Things is purely present, full of the circular time that infuses childhood. Jenny Offill excavates a unique and beautiful voice in the character of Grace, a voice that readers will remember long after, and will want to return to, just as they return to their own childhood during moments of nostalgic introspection. Last Things captures lost things masterfully, with an elegance that will break your heart--and then offer it back to you.