Hilary Jordan's novel When She Woke is a modern day…
If you’re like me, your 20s are packed in a triple taped box and hiding in the dingiest attic corner of your brain beneath garbage bags filled with clothes for Goodwill and that easel you bought the day you decided (in your 20s!) that maybe you were a painter.
This was not my shining-est decade. If I wasn’t the grand master world champion of compartmentalizing, I would be in a constant state of cringing shame over things said, did, that blond phase, and people wronged. Luckily, that thing calm-looking, even-keeled 30-somethings say about their “30s being so great, so much better than their 20s,” etc. isn’t the bullshit a 20-something might believe it to be. It is so true that it is almost purple.
I see smart 20-somethings. They have informed opinions and interesting hobbies and a whole satchel of sharp life skills. That wasn’t me, though, and it isn’t the young woman in the lead role of Kate Zambreno’s keep-it-coming-on-the-cringe novel Green Girl. Ruth is young with a dead mother and an old relationship in her craw. She’s living in London and working as a perfume spritzer, poorly pimping a scent called “Desire.” She works with a gaggle of bitches who gossip about how she smiles too much and she has one friend, an Australian named Agnes with a hair trigger on her hair dye finger. Ruth might quit. She has that tendency to just leave a job mid-shift or not show up the next day. She might fall for Ollie, the resident heartthrob who is giving her the eye and she might bang a bartender in the basement of a bar seemingly because here she is in the basement and now their clothes have come off.
For the entire book, Ruth is in a mood. She’s fragile. She’s bored. She needs attention but doesn’t want attention. She’s barely conscious and she’s malleable. Sometimes she is the star of her own movie, sometimes she is a character in that movie just saying lines. Speaking of movies, they are at the center of this book. Ruth and Agnes are like Siskel and Ebert in the depths of their film catalogues, if Siskel and Ebert only critiqued at surface level: Edie Sedgwick’s hair or Ingrid Bergman’s character in “Gaslight.”
Not much happens in this book beyond walks to work and home from work, interactions with coworkers and a threesome that is more like a two-and-a-half-some. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is seemingly watching young Ruth from a safe place. Like, maybe, Ruth in her 30s. This narrator makes rare commentary and when she does, she isn’t coddling Ruth or making excuses for her behavior but she also isn’t spitting over her actions or lack thereof. It’s a little bit like scientific poetry and “Look what she’s going to do now” with a head shake. She seems to just wish for Ruth to move beyond this phase and maybe has the knowledge that she does.
“I want to choke these youngsters just to hear them make a sound not banal or repeated or well-behaved. If I choked Ruth she would make a squeaking sound, like a rubber doll. But I won’t choke Ruth why would I choke her I love her. If I did choke her it would be in a loving way, like the poster of the Heimlich maneuver you see hung up in school cafeterias and auto shops, the two faceless figures doubled over together in a violent embrace. I would choke her to get at her insides.”
I have a hunch this book could be enjoyed by people who are 22 or 36, but that both would take something different from it. The 22 year old would see the angst and the struggle and maybe say “That’s me.” The 36 year old might see the angst, squirm at its familiarity, and say “That was me.” (I can’t lie. There are complete sentences in this book that I have stuffed into that attic in the brain under those clothes. Most creepily when Ruth is walking and feels like someone is going to come up behind her and stab her). I also have a hunch that some people couldn’t enjoy this book. They would see this girl with her soft fontanel and find her exhausting — like the sneering party companions of her much-older lover treat her. To me this feels like Zambreno’s unflinching look straight into the muck and guts of an ugly period of time in Ruth’s life. It feels really honest. Nicely played, Zambreno.