Companionship, as in a feeling of fellowship or friendship, is a sensation that virtually all people require and seek. Often and preferably, this state arises organically, but sometimes it has to be purchased, causing a knotty web of emotion and obligation to be woven by and around the parties involved. In her deeply felt but unsentimental debut novel “Say Say Say,” Minneapolis native Lila Savage explores the charged dynamic between a paid companion and the family she serves.

Twenty-nine and trying to figure out what she wants from life, the artistically inclined but directionless Ella works as a caregiver less out of passion than a need to do something to make a living. She has been working “as a companion for elderly people for six years, and somewhere along the way, sadness had lost its power to shock Ella the way it once had,” which she notes is for the best because in such a profession, one must come up with a “sustainable response,” being able “to step in and out of grief.”

In this brief, lyrical story, Ella finds herself at the apex of a triangle of compassion and confusion comprising Jill, an older woman in decline due to a head injury from a car accident, and Jill’s retired carpenter husband Bryn, a handsome and gentle but frustrated man who hires Ella as Jill’s home health aide. Younger than most of her previous clients, Jill is only 60, and a former social worker who now can’t “really converse, not in any meaningful sense.” The novel’s title is drawn from the compulsive phrase she utters, one of several that she repeats over and over as her memory disintegrates.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Wallace Stegner Fellow, Savage herself spent almost a decade working as a caregiver, and her insight into this fraught and intimate profession comes through on every page in incisive and beautiful language. The third-person narration is intensely reflective and psychologically revelatory, as when Ella fails to clarify to Bryn that her partner Alix is a woman. She thinks, “as Eleanor Roosevelt had reportedly longed to be beautiful, Ella longed to be good, and if a part of her wanted to distance itself from the bourgeois predictability of Bryn and Jill’s pre-accident life, another part of her was loath to dash Bryn’s illusion of wholesome, middling solidarity.”

As the assignment draws Ella further into Bryn and Jill’s orbit, she has to revise her own notions about duty and love. And in this deceptively simple book, the reader, too, receives an honest and empathetic opportunity to consider loneliness and the people whose labor gets bought to alleviate it.

 

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”

Say Say Say
By: Lila Savage.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 161 pages, $24.
Event: With Kate McQuade. 7 p.m. July 18, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.