Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachel Elliott
28th Aug 2015
Rachel Elliott is a psychotherapist as well as a writer, and it shows. Whispers Through a Megaphone, her first novel, is a very kind book. Each character has their flaws, but is ultimately a good person. Their motivations may sometimes be impulsive, or destructive, but they are all ultimately following the right path towards understanding themselves, and the world, better. In a literary scene full of people you would hesitate to pass on a dark night (I’m thinking specifically about any of Ian McEwan’s characters here), this makes for a refreshing change.
The stories, of a marriage breaking up and a traumatised woman dealing with terrible events in her past, are typical themes of the modern novel. Ralph and Sadie, married since university, struggle to maintain their relationship in the face of Sadie’s addiction to, and high profile on, Twitter, combined with Ralph’s disconnection from the world. Miriam hasn’t left her house for three years and is unable to speak above a whisper. So far, so twee, but it would be a mistake to let that put you off – the characters win you over with their depth of emotion and convincing back stories. Even Miriam’s wicked mother, whose behaviour towards her daughter is basically manipulative child abuse, has suffered in her turn and, though this doesn’t excuse her, reminds the reader that good and evil is rarely as simple as we would like it to be.
The two different families in Whispers Through a Megaphone are endearingly true to life, with in-jokes and little traditions, history and specific characteristics. The novel dates itself, however, with the use of Twitter and specific references to pop culture – something that looks like it’s becoming endemic. It’s a difficult thing to get around, because of course when writing about the modern condition, social media and television are an unavoidable truth. But the inserted bits of Twitter dialogue shake you out of the story, taking a moment or two to get back into the narrative again. Perhaps because it was all a little unbelievable. Who, for example, waits 16 years of unsatisfactory marriage before idly looking up their old lover on Twitter? Some people look up their old lovers on Twitter every day.
The book is also perhaps a little too ambitious. There’s a hint of trying to shoehorn too many social issues into one narrative set up. Rachel Elliott has a lot to say about people’s issues but the danger is that there are so many characters with so many different problems that the reader loses track, and can’t give their full attention to each one.
Despite these small criticisms, I liked Whispers Through a Megaphone very much. The family scenes are incredibly well-drawn, giving the lie to that hoary old Tolstoy quote ‘all happy families are alike’. The two different families in Whispers Through a Megaphone are endearingly true to life, with in-jokes and little traditions, history and specific characteristics. Perhaps despite its ambitions, it’s a light read, but an enjoyable one.
Be sure to check out our wonderful guest post from Rachel Elliott exploring the fear of missing out in the Twitter age.