By Jason Gurley
When tragedy befalls the Witt family, young Eleanor is left to pick up the pieces of her grief-stricken parents. And just when it couldn’t seem to get any worse, Eleanor is pulled out of her world and thrown, bewildered, into a netherworld, before being flung back again with terrible consequences. Like Alice falling through the rabbit-hole, Eleanor dangerously traverses the line between the real and the other.
“Eleanor” by Jason Gurley is classified as sci-fi/fantasy. It would be better to describe it as a realistic drama set against a surrealist dreamscape. Sci-fi and fantasy novels can reflect reality as much as a naturalistic novel, but fantasy looks at the world through a prism that promotes an alternative focus. Like walking through a corridor of distorted mirrors at a fairground, Gurley chooses to inflate or relocate aspects of known reality, forcing specific themes and ideas to come into sharper relief. In the case of “Eleanor”, it is the deeply complex experience of grief that thrives in the freedom of a sci-fi.
The sci-fi elements in “Eleanor” are akin to dream-like surrealism, creating a parallel dream plane that exists alongside reality. By keeping the planes separate, a welcome distance is maintained between the characters’ real, physical existence and their imagined experience of the dream world. As for the beings that linger in between the dreams and reality, the beings of “the rift”, they are a mystery that unfolds gently as the novel progresses. However, the events unfold a little too gently, being well past the half-way point before the action really escalates. Prior to this, it is the harrowing account of life after tragedy that keeps you gripped.
The chapters are nice and short, making it easy to read. The different chapters also represent a change in character perspective or the movement from one plane to another. The arrangement of chapters is a little bit jumpy, particularly when the rift is first introduced. As is often the case, the beginning and the end are more clearly thought out than the events in between.
As already mentioned, the best feature of the book is the way it deals with grief and depression. The novel, as a whole, is a journey that seeks to resolve the destructive presence of grief in Eleanor’s family, strung through generations. As events unfold, the surrealism escalates, eventually taking over the narrative, and it is this descent into chaos that must either resolve into order or finally collapse without redemption. Do not misunderstand, it is not just dreams at stake; this is a realm of real human experience and the danger is real too.
As a representation of the human psyche, the dreams manifest a severe image of depression which attempts to resolve the difficulty of explaining this most complex of human experiences. Real pain runs rampant in the imagined realm.
Metaphors, alternately luscious and desolate, populate the dream planes; their true meanings remaining obscured until you reach the pivotal chapters. These metaphors are elegantly crafted – mature but uncomplicated. There is also a motif of water woven throughout the novel, setting up rhetorical binaries. Purification and oblivion; transience and permanence; cleansing and destructive; soothing and terrifying. It draws the characters together as well as throwing them apart, and it becomes clear that it is only through water that a resolution can be found for Eleanor’s family – past and present. Gurley’s opening quote sets us on this path from the outset:
“Time is a river, and it flows in a circle.”
You can choose to interpret the book – and in particular, it’s conclusion – in one of two ways: a sci-fi that hopes otherworldly intervention will bring about a happy ending or a surrealist exploration of emotional turmoil. To put it simply: does “the rift” exist or not? You decide.