In Marshall-Ball’s debut, a childhood trauma threatens to upend the life of a young woman suffering from selective mutism.
Since childhood, something has always separated Lily Emmett from others—she’s almost totally silent. Though now a respected member of a university math department, she rarely speaks more than a few sentences in a row to even her sister, Connie, or boyfriend, Richard. Lily’s able to enjoy a relatively normal life in her London flat, however, until she’s attacked by unexplained fainting spells and “that feeling, so familiar: as if her throat was closing up,” spurring the resurrection of buried childhood ghosts. In chapters that rotate between the present and past, Lily’s silence is traced back to the terrible accidental death of a neighbor child, Billy, one night in the woods bordering their houses. As the past narrative cuts to unsettling, vivid memories of Lily’s childhood—her mother’s depression, vicious mockery at school, and trips to stone-walled institutions in efforts to “cure” her mutism—present-day Lily tries to work backward and unearth the lost memory of what exactly she saw the night Billy died. At a crossroads, she and Richard move to her old family home in Drayfield, empty since her mother’s death. Marshall-Ball does an admirable job of seamlessly switching between the past and present and building a creeping sense of unease that’s especially visceral when Lily is a child, shuttled from institution to home and back again: “Lily looked into her glass. There was a single black hair floating in the opaque orange juice, swirling round in circles….Nothing here was quite right.” Lily’s selective mutism, too, is part of a complicated and well thought out character with surprising mental strength. The book’s final reveal is somewhat anticlimactic, though, and leaves a number of key relationships and emotional journeys unresolved.
A mystery worth reading for its close attention to the strangeness of family, childhood, and memory.