Tiny Pages Reveal Big, Rodent-Related Worries In 'Devotion'

 (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)
(Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

When it came in the mail, I thought it was a joke, this tiny little book. It was hardcover, the size of a pack of cigarettes and about as heavy in my palm as a bird. There was no jacket, just the name — Devotion: A Rat Story — and a rat, embossed in gold.

I read it in an hour, maybe a little less— it's just a hundred pages or so. An appetizer, I thought. A snack.

But two days later, I was still thinking about it. And I'm sure that it'll still be scratching around inside of my skull a week from now, like cold little rat claws scraping inside the walls.

Meloy is a good writer. She's won some awards and has a few (larger) novels already behind her. She has a talent for laying a scene and making relatable characters who seem to exist in the real world. In Devotion, she tells the story of Eleanor — a single mother trying to grow up, move out of her parents' house and get started on her own life. After years of saving, Eleanor finds a house for sale which is, rather miraculously, in her price range.

"Eleanor had never bought a house before," Meloy writes, "and the real estate broker had the air of an authoritative and impatient aunt, waiting for a decision. She tapped long nails on the steering wheel of her parked Lexus while Eleanor gazed at the little house from the passenger seat. The sycamore in the yard had good roots, the broker said."

Everything about the deal is wrong. Everything Eleanor does is wrong — her decisions born of pride, frustration and a desperation to get her real, grown-up life started. Inasmuch as Devotion is a horror story (and it is), this is where its horror begins, in such simple, workaday things as an ignored inspection.

It gets worse when the rats show up. The exterminator tells her they have been a problem in the neighborhood for years; that the two, elderly sisters who live in the house next door have been feeding them, keeping them like pets. Not just a few rats, but thousands.

Meloy's horror is the horror of the mundane — of small bad decisions unwinding a carefully, precariously balanced life. Everything that Eleanor has (her savings, her pride, the future for her and her daughter Hattie) is tied up in the house. It is the horror of timing and immutability (how these small bad decisions can end up poisoning your entire life, as evidenced in the tale of the sisters). It is the horror of being haunted forever by the unwise things you have done.

And for those of you spooked by the length more than the rats — who feel like the psychic weight of a book is (or ought to be) determined by its weight as a physical object — I say this: Sure, this is essentially a short story prettied-up to look like a book. It is such a postage stamp of a thing that there's a temptation to write it off as forgettable. But there are many large books on my desk right now, tipping the scales at 600 or 800 pages, or more. These are books which exude heaviness like bricks. Which attempt to state simply by their mass that they are important and worthwhile and deep.

And while some of them are absolutely worth their page counts, many are the literary equivalent of a platter of Applebee's Riblets — junk food made epic (and only arguably desirable) simply by the size of the portion. Any idiot can write a long book. All it takes is patience and a willingness to keep pounding on the keys. A short book is a challenge. It's all about what you don't say. What you trust the reader to bring with them.

And Meloy understands this. The decades of history which formed the cursed dyad of the sisters next door get a few fleeting pages. The relationship which resulted in Eleanor's daughter, Hattie, is dispensed with in a handful of words, and yet feels no less full for the scarcity of details because everyone has, at one point, fallen for someone who just seemed made for leaving.

The smallness, the closeness, the creeping, awful intimacy of the tale is echoed in its format, and in this, Devotion reminds me of other small books which I have come to love. Like Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, it wears its emotion plainly and unadorned. Like Julian Barnes' The Sense Of An Ending, it presumes a familiarity with youth and pain and feels no need to waste words explaining them. Like all such small, vicious things, Devotion does its damage and leaves its scars with an admirable efficiency, and without a single breath wasted.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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