In An Unremarkable Body, the debut novel by Elisa Lodato, the corpse of a 51-year-old woman is opened and read like a book. The pathologist examines with scrupulous care the bones and flesh, identifying the trace left by an emergency C-section; an earlobe scar from a long-ago confrontation; a knitted-together arm bone, the legacy of a bicycle accident.
It was a severed spinal cord that killed Katharine Lambton, her daughter Laura Rowan discovering the body at the foot of the stairs in Katharine’s home. Fragments from the post-mortem report preface each chapter in Laura’s tenacious pursuit of her ghost-like mother, whose marriage to Katharine’s father, Richard, represented the triumph of convention over desire. The conception of Laura, the older of their two children, was the result of intoxicated distraction that should never have amounted to anything as momentous as a new family.
The pace of An Unremarkable Body is meandering rather than propulsive, the loopy rhythm echoing Laura’s aimlessness. At the time of her mother’s death she has built a career as a freelance writer and journalist from the foundation of a London-centric blog, and she has largely succeeded – but for the occasional carnal backslide – in breaking free of a university friend, David, who made a caste-correct marriage and moved to Buckinghamshire.
David has what an American shrink would term abandonment issues, after his mother left the family when he was six and moved to the United States. David and Laura have enough in common, not least brains – they met at Cambridge – but their relationship, when Laura looks back, “felt like a destructive act from the beginning”. Like the New York writer Emily Gould (Friendship), Lodato leans into the flightiness and impermanence of everything about youth, most of all love that is over before it begins.
The oddity of An Unremarkable Body is that the thematic glue bonding one chapter to the next quickly becomes an unnecessary embellishment, so intently does the reader follow Laura’s dogged march through her mother’s life. The two women had much in common: bookishness, a preference for solitude, a comfort with the life of the mind. Laura finds out only after her mother’s death just how much of Katharine’s life took place internally, and how the trajectory of that life, and the love that privately defined it, and accidental ended it, was set in childhood.
In the end, Laura concludes, “I was a lost daughter, sifting through her body parts, looking for the woman that was my mother.” As a meditation on grief, An Unremarkable Body is surpassed by the likes of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, but as a story of the secrets and silences that have divided mothers and daughters since the dawn of time, Lodato’s story is sympathetic, at times incisive, and fearless in its scrutiny of its living heroine’s flaws.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones