The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka, book review: Misfits on the route home

Wodicka uses two characters’ incompatibility to his advantage, creating a dialogue of disorientation and a plot which slips seamlessly between points of view

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Have you ever read a novel which ended on the exclamation “Daddy!” and still managed to be both unsentimental and strangely moving? Tod Wodicka’s use of the word has the feelgood factor of The Railway Children and the bitter wit of Sylvia Plath. Somehow, he gets away with it.

The daddy in question is Howie Jeffries. Cursed with a face that makes children cry, Howie is an unbearably shy divorcee living on Route 29 in upstate New York. “A route,” Milan Kundera informs us, “has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points it connects.” With no apparent beginning or end, there’s little to keep Route 29 from “slithering off into the hills”. Stranded among fields rented out to advertising billboards, the only two houses for miles belong to Howie and his 24-year-old neighbour, Emily. They’ve never spoken.

The two are more suited than they might think – or rather, “their paralyses fit”. Howie is trapped by a crippling inarticulacy, resigned to his fate as a meek-mannered man with the face of a war criminal. Emily suffers from self-imposed insomnia, an attempt to escape the nightmarish visions that have haunted her since childhood. When circumstances force them to connect (here comes the feelgood), their lives finally gain meaning. Howie teaches Emily how to sleep; she teaches him how to speak.

Their relationship is purely platonic. All too often the premise of an “unlikely friendship” remains just that: unlikely. But Wodicka turns the characters’ incompatibility to his advantage, creating a dialogue of disorientation and a plot which slips seamlessly between points of view. Howie and Emily often speak at crossed purposes and their actions towards each other are well-meaning, if misguided. The effect is comic, poignant and wholly convincing.

However, in the final section of the novel we’d be forgiven for thinking that Wodicka had lost his touch. Things start to fall apart after a faux-Hitchcockian adventure set in a mountain retreat. The wry sense of anti-climax becomes a little too studied, and before we know it the characters’ futures flash across the page like closing credits. But just as we begin to lose hope, Wodicka swoops in with a spectacular save. Prose that has become fast-paced and frenetic resolves itself in one masterful final trope, one absurd final word. The route has come full circle, attaining perfect integration between start and finish – it connects.

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