Confessional first-person narrators are often penitents. They’ve done bad and want to be good. We read to find out what terrible things the speaker has done and if he can be redeemed. Poet and playwright Victor Lodato has deftly reversed this premise to heightened effect in his first novel, Mathilda Savitch, which was the 2009 PEN American Literary Award Winner for Fiction. Mathilda is a young teen who declares, “I want to be awful.” She schemes to stir up trouble. The questions become, Why does she want to be bad? Will she succeed? Will she break her parents’ hearts?
Ma and Da already teeter on the edge of self-control from of the death of their older daughter, Helene, one year ago. Mathilda says her sister was pushed in front of a train, though the narrator’s unreliability and desire to wreak havoc soon throw this assertion into doubt. The book traces a few months in Mathilda’s young life during which she provokes her emotionally absent parents into noticing her and tries to sleuth out the man responsible for Helene’s death. Accompanying these acutely described and disturbing private events are vague acts of national terrorism that cast a menacing shadow over the community and the psyches of Mathilda and her friends. Mathlida Savitch is a swift and compelling tour of adolescent grief set in a realistically uncertain landscape.
The overwhelming triumph of this debut fiction is Mathilda’s pitch-perfect and steadily compelling voice. She is funny and smart, ruthless and vulnerable. One feels the heartbreaking depths of the Savitch family tragedy most deeply when Mathilda uses her scouring powers of observation on her family, then turns them inward on herself. During a deathly still evening at home with Ma and Da she says
I hate how quiet it is. One smelly dog fart and then nothing, you almost think you’ve gone deaf. A person in my position begins to think about things, death even. About death and time and why it is that I’m afraid sometimes at night sitting and watching the two of them reading and almost not breathing but for the books moving up and down like something floating on top of the ocean. And is Ma drunk again is the other question, but who’s asking. Shut up and mind your own business, I think. She’s a free man in Paris. Which is a song Ma used to sing when there were songs in the house.
Mathilda’s plan of bad behavior begins by breaking plates and slapping a girl at school and escalates to wearing her dead sister’s clothes and hacking into her email account. There she finds sexually allusive messages from several men and determines that one of them, Louis, is her sister’s murderer. Mathilda decides to write him as Helene to ferret him out. But this is just the superficial motivation for activating her sister’s lost voice. Mathilda believes that sending emails from Helene’s account will summon her sister’s ghost. This chilling logic spurs her to write not only to Louis but also her own mother:
And then I thought, no, send one to Ma. My heart pretty much stopped when the idea hit me. It’s brilliant when you think about it. I went to sleep feeling like a terrorist. But I wasn’t going to kill people, I was going to bring them back to life. That’s a whole different kind of terror. It’s the terror of god.
This makes for a skin-tingling tension. Mathilda manages to track down her suspect, but the encounter forces her to confront some long-held beliefs about who her sister was and how she died, beliefs she has passed along to the reader. Mathilda and the reader discover together that she cannot be God, or even God-like, because she is not omniscient—nor is she always truthful.
In the wake of the terror bombings, which occur on the anniversary of Helene’s death and resemble the attacks of 9/11, Mathilda gets busy converting her basement into an emergency shelter. She condemns her parents’ continued lack of engagement and concern.
Ma and Da have no idea I’ve been down here. I’ve tried to talk to them about the possibility of disaster, but they don’t seem particularly interested. FEMA recommends talking to your parents about anxiety and other feelings, and also about your family’s preparedness. But Ma and Da can’t even hear me. It’s like they’re already in their own private bomb shelters inside their heads. Which is fine by me. If they don’t want to share, then I won’t either.
In such keenly observed and childishly exasperating moments, one sympathizes both with the girl’s cry for attention and her parents’ desire to ignore it.
The narration of Mathilda Savitch revels in its psychological claustrophobia. Mathilda registers every slight, every doubt, every choking passion. She does foray out into the world, but the lasting impression of this book is of a girl imprisoned in her own head by the narcissistic forces of grief and adolescence, exacerbated by distraught and barely functional parents. What slowly becomes clear is that Mathilda is not at all motivated to be awful and because Mathilda is no penitent, redemption is not possible—nor appropriate. She inflicts pain and worry on others in the process of interrogating her own grief and confusion. Lodato’s novel argues that much of Mathilda’s teenage wrongdoing is justified. And won’t her bold ingenuity lead her to the future we readers want for her? If she is good and stays at home with her parents, she will never be free.