Author: Elizabeth Reeder
Publisher: Kohl Publishing
The main story explored in Elizabeth Reeder’s second novel (and Kohl Publishing’s well-selected first) is quite extraordinary by itself. Rachel Roanoke and Hal Fremont court for a day, marry, and plan to have fifty children – one named after each state. They track each birth using a carved map hung on the wall.
It’s a given that Fremont is, in part, about the tough endurance of maternal love (this review is fittingly being published on Mothers’ Day in the UK). But by no means is this book a strung-out gimmick. It is a sprawling, relentless epic. If you sit and read, the Fremont family’s mythology comes out of the page and grows around you – a steadily-enveloping oak, wrapping its trunk around a foreign body.
The sexism and expectation around traditional masculinity is thoroughly dissected. Hal’s only son, Tex, has to attempt to live up to his father’s standards. The eleven other girls – chronically ignored by their father – grow and individualise as best they can. Reeder illustrates the irony beautifully: Hal can view his daughters as one unit all he likes, but much of the novel is necessarily given over to their adventures and accidents.
With such a collection of children, you might expect Reeder to tip over into placing each one a little too neatly into a pigeonhole (“This one likes wearing pink, this one’s a tomboy,” for example). That never happens. Each child is a carefully-wrought individual. None of them are ever fully laid bare in 2D. You can find yourself leaning towards picking a favourite or despising one of them – before realising that their position in the family line-up has shaped that particular facet of them, and that they are so much more than what you see them as. Late in the book, I found myself detesting one of the youngest children for her apparently selfish actions; then, without didactics or fanfare, it became obvious that she only did what she must to stop herself going mad. Therein lies the true magic of Fremont: you must accept the beauties and curses of the whole family. They feel real.
Touches of magic realism and the sense of a deep natural power wind like gold thread through the whole thing, enhancing its charm and pull over the reader. Reeder’s imagination buoys up a narrative that would get mired down in others’ hands. Some details are genius, like baby Cole being unable to sleep unless she can see the stars.
The huge family is never still; their energy pulses through each word. There is a skilfully-created sense that any one of the children could disappear at any moment. Some of them do. And when death visits the family, you feel the loss with a keenness that might surprise you.
Fremont is a masterful, shattering examination of that special brand of madness with which only your family can infect you. At times it simmers like Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides; sometimes, the text feels like a lyrical, magical spell, in the fashion of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.
Read it slowly. It is a story to be savoured, cried over, and celebrated.