The irreverent narrator of Jonathan Evison's comic novel, "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" sees all, knows all, mocks all. He never appears as a character; he just tells the story, his jovial voice booming on the page like a game show host. It's fun to listen to, his jokiness, his lighthearted sarcasm. That voice is what makes the book work.
The life he is recounting is that of Harriet Chance, age 78, widowed a year but still hanging around with her late husband, Bernard, who shows up frequently to grouse a little, give advice and — the thing that is really preying on his ghostly mind — confess his secrets from their past.
Evison plays around with time, dipping in and out of Harriet's life as she grows up, marries, has children, re-enters the workforce and nurses and buries Bernard. ("Yes, yes, we're all over the place again, pinballing across the decades, slinging and bumping our way through the days of your life, seemingly at random," the narrator says.)
The main thread of the story follows Harriet as she heads off on an Alaskan cruise that Bernard has somehow won posthumously. As they journey farther and farther north, Harriet and Bernard relive the past — the transgressions, the hurts, the failures, the difficult kids, the disappointing jobs. Their secrets — and they both have them — are predictable, though, right down to the last one, the shocker, which the reader will almost certainly see coming and will be saddened by, but not shocked.
Harriet and Bernard are a likable pair, and the book's lesson is more an affirmation than revelation: Life is hard and complicated; everyone has secrets, and even that unassuming old woman you see standing quietly at the bow of the boat has endured drama and betrayal and passion.
In the end, the sweetness overrides the sorrows. "This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" is a lively, entertaining read, funny and poignant.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books.