In Carol Smallwood’s novel Lily’s Odyssey (All Things That Matter Press, 2010), a retired scholar in a working-class Midwestern town struggles to process her memories of childhood incest and unravel its effects on her psyche.
This book’s strengths are its sharp characterization of people and cultural settings, and the connections it draws between domestic abuse and sexist institutions that conspire to keep it secret. On her long journey to claim her truth, the narrator must rethink not only her family’s official storyline of virtue and vice, but the messages from religious authorities and psychologists who dismiss a woman’s perspective. Metaphors from her scientific research give her a creative way to resist. This book shows how trauma can give birth to an artist’s intellect that notices and questions human behavior.
While I understand that the nonchronological structure is meant to show how traumatic memories bleed into the present, I personally wished Smallwood had thrown in a few more clues to indicate where we are on the timeline when a new scene begins. By the time I finished the book, I had figured out all the essential information, but orienting myself was sometimes distracting. On the other hand, perhaps that’s the effect she was going for. Being inside Lily’s head is the experience of an incisive mind condemned to spend most of its energy flailing around in a fog.
This review by Jan Siebold shares some more of the book’s highlights. Jan Siebold, a school library media specialist in East Aurora, New York since 1977, received her MLS from the University of Buffalo. Jan has served as NYLA Secretary, and received the NYLA/SLMS Cultural Media Award in 1992. She is the author of Rope Burn (Albert Whitman, 1998), Doing Time Online (Albert Whitman, 2002) and My Nights at the Improv (Albert Whitman, 2005), three middle grade novels on numerous award lists.
Some authors use the word “odyssey” to simply represent a journey or a passage of time. In Lily’s Odyssey author Carol Smallwood takes a more literal approach. Just as Odysseus spends years making his way home after the Trojan War, Lily struggles to find her true home in the world.
She has encountered her share of cannibals, lotus-eaters, sirens and monsters along the way, but it is her abusive Uncle Walt and his Cyclopic wife Hester (who turned her one good eye away from the incestuous situation years ago) that have haunted Lily’s thoughts and dreams since childhood.
Smallwood’s Homer-like use of a nonlinear plot is well-suited to the story since Lily’s journey is rather like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle. With intelligence and humor Lily navigates the passages of her life which include marriage, motherhood, psychotherapy and education. She even spends time in Ithaca while working on a Master’s Degree in Geology. In fact, geological references are abundant as Lily explores her lifelong fascination with the formation of the earth and her place on it. Readers can feel Lily’s sense of frustration at the ever-shifting underground plates that prevent her from finding solid footing.
Orphaned at an early age and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Lily later explores her obsession about abandoned animals and plants, and eventually discovers its root in her childhood. What may seem obvious to the reader is not as easily seen by Lily,
whose vision of the past has been obscured by the trauma of abuse, insensitivity and denial.
The book begins with the death of Uncle Walt and Lily’s return to the house where she had spent her childhood. It is there that Lily begins to think about reinventing herself without the existence of Uncle Walt in her life.
The author’s use of imagery is at times stunning. “I heard the train whistle. I saw myself as a bird following the train as it wound its way through the landscape, leaving only smoke as evidence that it had passed.” Referring to her aunt, Lily thinks about “Tulips closed as tightly as Aunt Hester’s lips.”
Smallwood’s many cultural, historical, scientific and religious references are a nod to her readers’ awareness, intelligence and curiosity. They elevate the story and allow us to discover more about Lily’s world and our own.
On a basic level the reader can relate to Lily’s awkward attempts at relationships, and to her wickedly funny observations about people. We cheer for Lily as she leaves behind her dismissive husband Cal, the lecherous Dr. Schackmann and other toxic people whom she encounters. We understand as she questions the tenets that were instilled during her strict Catholic upbringing, including “the duties and sufferings of women as wives.” We yearn for Lily to find the illumination and peace of mind that she seeks.
In a particularly vulnerable moment Lily pens a letter to God. In the letter she writes, “Women need new paths. To find our way out of the old labyrinths requires more than one lifetime.”
Through Lily’s Odyssey, Carol Smallwood gives us hope that one lifetime might be enough for Lily and others to find their way.
Find out more about Carol Smallwood’s other writing and editing projects here. She is the editor of numerous anthologies about librarians, library science, and women’s writing careers.