Echolocation, as you might know, is navigation by sound. It's how bats make their way around. And though the people in this novel move about mostly blindly (in places where bats occasionally occur), they deserve a better title. But this brief book, product of a small press that publishes only four titles a year, has to capture attention if it's going to be read, and "Echolocation" caught mine. Then the story held it.
"Echolocation" is written with such directness and apparent simplicity that the occasional flight of fancy or narrative flair might be jarring if it weren't almost always so remarkably right-on -- the soupçon of insight or the moment of strangeness that makes these characters sharply, often surprisingly, real. Though men enter into it, they're a sad lot -- the story, which takes place just south of the Canadian border, belongs to the women. These women, a thrown-together family of sorts, are unfortunate misfits who don't necessarily belong together but don't really belong anywhere else, either.
The story begins with a dying Auntie Marie being tended by her foster daughter, Geneva, who's just lost an arm to a chainsaw accident and left her charming but ne'er-do-well husband. Marie already was caring for Cherie, the daughter of her stepsister, Renee. And Renee, who had a precarious situation in Florida, has been handed a baby (girl, of course) by her ne'er-do-well boyfriend, who plans to sell the child. In an excess of maternal feelings, Renee is heading north to home, trailing the boyfriend.
What happens when Renee and the boyfriend and Cherie and Geneva and a few other lost souls converge is the heart of the story that "Echolocation" tells. It is a story about motherhood and longing and loss and, more than anything, about not quite belonging anywhere -- about making, or failing to make, a home out of what one is handed, which never seems to be quite enough. The narrative, at first seemingly so straightforward, gradually begins to turn in upon itself: giving us a glimpse of Marie as a child long after the Marie we know has died; taking us through Geneva's courtship, though we begin by seeing her leaving her husband; showing us the artificial but fierce sisterhood between Geneva and Cherie even as the relationship's toxic half-life is revealed. And what seems like a desultory tale of many generations of mostly women suddenly telescopes into a few pivotal -- and shocking -- events. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems, "Echolocation" least of all.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin and a teacher in Fairleigh-Dickinson's MFA program.