One of the beauties of fiction is its ability to invite us into moments we could never witness in reality, into circumstances far beyond our experience. How clearly this beauty is illustrated and exploited by Lydia Millet in her new novel, My Happy Life. It's the story of one woman's life, as spoken or written from her locked room in an abandoned mental hospital. The staff and patients are gone, but no one has thought to come for our narrator. She is left with nothing but the water in the bathroom to keep her alive, her few possessions and the last light from two flickering light bulbs to fend off windowless darkness.
We come to know that the dreary room is not unlike her life. She began as a foundling in a shoebox, shuttled from one foster family to the next. "You are extra," the women in the state home told her, "Nobody needs you." No stranger to abuse from an early age, she is subjected to rape, kidnapping, abandonment and staggering neglect. Everything that she manages to love is either taken from her or is, itself, the source of more pain.
Despite the real beauty of the writing, there are points where the narrator's voice stretches too thin over the circumstances, becoming unrealistically erudite for an uneducated woman. Yet there could hardly be a more difficult character to create, one of the throng of homeless in our cities, shuffled in and out of our mental health system, marginalized and forgotten. Within these pages, Millet enters a world where the "invisible" of society exist, punished when they attempt to become part of the foreground.
Although she focuses on the horror of this woman's life, Millet also conveys the woman's capacity for love for her attackers, who at least want to be close to her, for those who would use her and ignore her, no matter how loathsome they might be.
Never shrinking from the bald sadness of this woman's life, Millet stays true to the character's unending supply of hope, both wise and childlike. In doing so, she proves herself a delicate and fearless writer with an uncommon voice.