Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: An Invisible Sign Of My Own

“An Invisible Sign Of My Own,” by Aimee Bender
8/10 – A very enjoyable fabulist narrative about a young woman trying to find her place in an offbeat world that doesn’t quite fit her quirks.

Mona Gray, the protagonist of “An Invisible Sign of My Own,” once had a math teacher named Mr. Jones who lived next door to her parents and wore his moods around his neck in the form of wax numbers. The higher the number, the better the mood. By the time Mona has turned twenty and begun teaching math herself, Mr. Jones has retired to open a hardware store, but she continues to watch his numbers. The practice strikes her as odd, but not bizarre; the same could be said of her decision to mark her twentieth birthday by purchasing an axe at his store.

I first encountered Bender’s work in my fabulist fiction workshop. I was impressed with her sparse prose and eccentric characters (a boy with keys for fingers!), and her ability to use fabulist elements to draw out people’s characters. “Invisible Sign” showcases that talent as well, brimming with lovely word pictures and funny, poignant characters. Mona’s second grade math class is richly drawn, eight-year-old kids with fully developed personalities; her father is trying anything he can think of to get rid of an illness that’s dogged him for a decade, leaving him faded to gray; one of her fellow teachers, a young man with burns on his arms, assigns the children diseases to act out.

The joy in this book is watching the genuine emotions of Mona and her fellow townspeople in the array of familiar and absurd situations they encounter. Despite her eccentricities, Mona is an engaging and sympathetic heroine, and by the end of the book, I really cared about her and wanted her story to end well. I didn’t always quite understand everything she did, but I felt the force of emotion behind it, and that carried me through the parts that didn’t jell as well for me.

This reminded me quite a bit of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” with the strangeness of that book’s protagonist diluted somewhat and spread out through the world. The styles are similar, very matter-of-fact and direct but with a wealth of detail pressed into compact sentences. Both books are a quick read, but well worth it. Simply because this one is less famous, don’t pass it by.

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