Tod Wodicka’s inspired and acclaimed 2008 debut novel came with an attention-grabbing, cover-devouring title (“All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well”) and a protagonist who was, of all things, a 63-year-old mead-quaffing medieval re-enactor. The divine undertones and historical engagement formed only part of the book’s appeal. The main draw was Wodicka’s poignant focal point: a man’s love for a wife who has died and the children he has grown distant from.
Seven years on and Wodicka has returned with a new novel, “The Household Spirit.” This time around he dispenses with the quirky originality that illuminated his first book to tell a straight story about fragmented families and attempts to reach out and reconnect.
Once again we are in a fictional upstate New York town and in the company of a man without a woman — in this case not a widower, but a divorcé. Fifty-year-old Howie Jeffries is “a man distorted by timidity” who, when not doing shifts at a General Electric Waste Water Treatment Plant, lives in near isolation out on rural Route 29.
Howie has only one neighbor, a young woman half his age called Emily Phane who also lives alone.
Wodicka flits back and forth painting their respective back stories. Emily is brought up by her grandfather after her mother is killed in a car crash. In her teens, she looks up to Howie’s daughter, Harriet, “a buzzy, cool, evil little hummingbird of a thing,” grows tired of being everybody’s second best friend and becomes tormented by sleep-depriving night terrors. Next door, Howie tries to rebuild his life after his wife’s departure, but despite valiant efforts from Harriet and from colleagues to coax him out of his shell, he remains a shy recluse.
Two tragedies bring both characters together: first, the death of Emily’s grandfather; second, a fire in her home that leaves it uninhabitable. She moves in with Howie and improves his social skills. He cooks for her and helps allay her violent sleep seizures. He finds her “emaciated, unwashed, intermittently deranged.” She finds him “as sexually intimidating as a Cheerio.”
Nothing romantic occurs, but each lonely soul finds in the other a companion who is able to fill a void and provide comfort.
Not every reader will be convinced by Wodicka’s rickety premise: Here are two neighbors who have lived next door for 25 years and not uttered a word to each other. However, the author ensures that we are affected by their separate plights and cheered by their shared camaraderie. Wodicka keeps the proceedings light by gently poking fun at Howie’s diffidence, gaucheness and even his appearance (in a baseball cap he resembles “an incognito Nazi war criminal on vacation”).
“The Household Spirit” manages to be wry and touching. Wodicka’s “community of two” may be small, but it is perfectly formed.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.