BookBrowse Reviews This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

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This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

by Jonathan Evison

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison X
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2015, 304 pages

    May 2016, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book



In Evison's fourth novel, a widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband's ashes.

Harriet Chance was born 78 years ago in Seattle. Although recently widowed, she still sees and converses with her husband Bernard, despite her children's worries about her sanity. When she gets a call telling her that Bernard won an Alaskan cruise, an offer that's about to expire, Harriet decides to go with a friend, Mildred Honeycutt; later, when Mildred drops out, she bravely determines to go alone, taking Bernard's ashes along. Little does she know that a letter from Mildred she's tucked in her purse will reveal a decades-old secret that will forever change how she thinks about her husband and her best friend.

The whole novel is told in the present tense, but the chapters mostly alternate between a third-person account of Harriet's cruise and a second-person survey of her past, delivered in the format of early reality television show This Is Your Life (see 'Beyond the Book'). This is a gutsy choice on Evison's part but allows for wry commentary on the course of Harriet's life as well as musings on the nonlinear nature of memory: "Yes, we're getting ahead of ourselves again, but hey, it happens, Harriet. The reflective mind is a pinball, pitching and careening, rebounding off anything it makes contact with."

As the second-person chapters accumulate, we start to piece together a picture of Harriet's character and experiences. She never felt like she was good enough for her nitpicky mother, but in the 1950s she became a legal assistant and looked set to follow in her father's footsteps as a lawyer – until she found out she was pregnant with Skip and she and Bernard, a janitor and ex-Marine, married in a hurry. Over the years she struggled to balance secretarial work with parenting, and turned all too often to her hidden wine boxes.

The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations from the past undermine Harriet's elderly persona in such surprising ways. She seems like a clichéd old dear, mild-mannered and unassuming, but we realize that in the past she has been an alcoholic and shown her temper through minor violence against her husband and their daughter, Caroline. In many cases she has made poor decisions, letting unfortunate events from her past repeat themselves in how she treats her family. And, as the story comes full-circle when Caroline catches up with Harriet in Alaska, it turns out that Harriet has an explosive secret of her own.

Bernard's reappearances in Harriet's life inject a pleasant touch of magic realism, and their banter is a highlight, authentically recreating the dynamic of a couple married for half a century. The only chapters of the novel I didn't care for imagine Bernard in the afterlife, where "Chief Transitional Officer" Charmichael warns him that if he keeps showing up in his wife's life on earth and trying to change things, he'll be sentenced to eternal nothingness. In a book that otherwise carefully balances humor with sadness, this seemed like a step too far into silliness.

Harriet Chance is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning how to reckon with the past. Parts of the past will always be inescapable, but how it will influence the present and future is still a choice. The sweeping view of the whole of Harriet's life gives us room to ponder how memories and turning points have made us who we are. As the narrator – whose identity only becomes clear at the very end of the book – concludes:

While the days unfold, one after the other, and the numbers all move in one direction, our lives are not linear, Harriet. We are the sum of moments and reflections, actions and decisions, triumphs, failures and yearnings, all of it held together, inexplicably, miraculously, really, by memory and association. Yes, Harriet, our lives are more sinew than bone.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2015, and has been updated for the June 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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