“Everyone has their own way of being brave,” Nora, The Night Child’s protagonist was once told; and she, we quickly come to understand, has been brave long enough.
Nora is a woman on the cusp, a teacher on the edge, a wife moving somewhat routinely (and in her own words, “embarrassingly”) toward a mid-life crisis situation with her husband. She has a six-year old daughter, and above all, wants to be a “sane mother.” Like any of us, Nora needs some time off to chill out, regroup and reconnect, let her guard down.
The Night Child opens with the gloomy season in the Pacific Northwest: Thanksgiving break is on the horizon, and Nora and her family have a fun and relaxing getaway plan. But, as she prepares to leave her classroom, an internal terror takes hold—a terror that for the remainder of the novel, Nora will not be able to escape. At the core of this panicked state comes a truth that her body—and this other body, in the form of a little girl named Margaret—is urging her to tackle. Thanksgiving break will be the start of a life-altering breakdown for Nora, and as she moves both fearfully and fiercely through Christmas and the new year toward Valentine’s Day, everything she has ever learned about love will be thrown on its head.
“Remember the Valentine’s dress,” Margaret says to Nora.
Anna Quinn spins her dark but redeeming debut novel of memory and non-memory on this thin red thread of love. This Valentine’s dress, this red, this color of passion and pain, vibrancy and vitality, the bruise and the wound. What is it about this lovely red dress, given to her by her grandfather after the death of her troubled mother, Nora is meant to remember? Why, when in her therapist’s office, is the last book her eyes fall on Society’s Betrayal of the Child? And what about Nora’s troubled, angry mother? She doesn’t want to talk about her mother: No! Nora is angry, she is drawn to her angry student Elizabeth, and even her otherworldly messenger Margaret possesses an urgent energy that scares her.
You feel the language—what is said and unsaid—in The Night Child the way you feel a tea kettle rattling on the stove before the whistle blows. This isn’t the book you want to take with you on Thanksgiving break, or summer break, or vacation: This is the book you will finish in a weekend, and then be haunted by forever. Anna Quinn asks, in prose that is poetic and cutting, elegant and striking: Who do we first learn about love and trust from, and how? Where do we bury betrayal, and how?
The Night Child is not only a well-crafted poignant addition to the current thunderous wave of #MeToo voices, but it is also an honest portrayal of mental illness and the struggle to forgive and to fight for one’s best possible life. Anna writes her protagonist’s slow break with the present/reality clearly and vividly, so that even if the reader is not familiar with dissociation as a psychological coping mechanism, we feel what it is to live with it—we are not confused by it.
Most importantly perhaps, though it is frightening and traumatic for those coming to terms with their fractured selves, Anna’s rendering of a subject she is very familiar with shines a hopeful light for all readers, in all our various grapplings with becoming more whole and living as shame-free and bravely as we can.
Margaret, the youngest character in the book, is a warrior of fierce hope and vital light. As the bearer of the Valentine’s dress message, this little girl’s voice transcends the darkness of Seattle in winter and pierces Nora’s crushed heart—ushering forth the best gift any of us could receive, on any holiday in any season—self-acceptance and love.