I picked this book up several times, read the blurb on the back, and put it back before I finally decided to read it. What turned me off was the description of the main character, Harriet, as “11 going on 30”; in general, I don’t enjoy stories about overly precocious, wise-beyond-their-years children. What eventually turned me on to the book was seeing it on a CBC Books list of overlooked Canadian fiction for 2016. I’m thankful for that list because the book is excellent.
Fortunately for me, Harriet is very much a child. She’s smart, yes, but Strube wonderfully captures the mind and decision-making and frustrations of an eleven-year-old girl.
Harriet’s little brother, Irwin, was born with hydrocephalus and suffers from seizures. His birth and medical issues contributed to her parent’s divorce and ongoing stress. Her mother’s life is wrapped up with caring for Irwin and there’s little time or attention left for Harriet. Harriet hates her mom’s live-in boyfriend and he seems to see only the worst in Harriet. Irwin adores his big sister, unaware of how much she fantasizes about life without him.
Although only eleven, Harriet is left largely to her own devices in their rundown apartment building. Filled with single moms and seniors (those who need cheap housing), Harriet makes money running errands for the seniors and tries to set her mom up with her friend Darcy’s dad. She does strange, elaborate, and dark art that her parents hate and as the summer progresses, the divisions between them grow deeper.
The book is divided between a “Before” section and and “After” section and it’s hard to say much about “After” without giving too much away. The dividing even itself is perhaps overly dramatic but the parallels it creates and what it ends up saying about family and parenthood and grief is pretty compelling.
This well-written, often funny, often sad story is very much worth reading.