by Elise Levine
Reviewed by Benjamin Selesnick
Say This, Elise Levine’s fourth book, contains two linked novellas that tell the story of the aftereffect of a murder from two perspectives: first, from the cousin of the murderer, who’d had an incestuous love affair with the cousin decades prior; and second, the family of the murdered, who’ve each splintered off in their grief.
Say This artfully examines how one can get stuck in their traumatic past, and how the want of moving on can fall short. In the first novella, Eva Hurries Home, which follows the cousin of the murderer as she is contacted by a true crime reporter who wants to tell the story of her cousin’s murder, Eva is stuck, two decades later, ruminating on the affair she had with her cousin. It was a wonderful, yet hazy period, and the writing of these passages reflect that: two, maybe three sentences on a page, written in short, staccato sentences with visceral, intimate detail, with multiple of these pages strung together. Eva had been ignored by her parents, had been ignored by her classmates, and then finally she was with someone—a twenty-one year old, predatory man—who was giving her attention. And now, following his murdering, she’s still stuck on him, both yearning and not for that time when she felt special, noticed. This conflict between her self-loathing for enjoying the incestuous affair and remembering much of it fondly, and her wish to presently recapture that feeling and to now learn more about her cousin, is what makes Eva Hurries Home such a propulsive, yet cerebral, read.
In addition to Eva’s lingering love her for cousin, there is an immense sense of guilt Eva feels for the crime her cousin committed. Like with her recollections of the affair, her rumination on guilt spiral into looping passages, where she argues for and against her guilt to herself—more often favoring the “for.” The language of these passages is very judicial—“Let the record show” (81), “Guilty as charged” (77)—which demonstrates a separation of the Eva’s: the self on trial, the self prosecuting, the self defending, and then, there’s the “God-Eva” (92), who “peered from above [at the other Eva’s], laughing her ass off.” (86). This splintering of the self, both as a result of her cousin’s murdering but, more so, the incest itself, is a haunting and accurate depiction of how trauma can create distance within a person, turning oneself unrecognizable at times.
The second novella, Son One, follows many of the same themes as Eva Hurries Home. Again, there’s the sense of being stuck following the trauma—in this case, the family members of the man who was murdered are stuck in a point in time following the murder. The murdered man’s brother, Michael, was stuck in the weeks of the trail, which he attended religiously; the murdered man’s mother-in-law, Lenore-May, was stuck on a flight returning home; and the murdered man’s father, Jim, was stuck in coma (even though the reader knows that in the present moment, Jim has already died). Each of them are aware of their stuck-ness, but are unable to escape. Lenore-May’s flight appears to take weeks, and Michael’s attendance at the trial seeps into his present day life, creating a significant disturbance in his relationship with both his wife and his daughter. There’s a sense of haunting, of the intervention of a malevolent psychic force, that gives the reader a vivid sense of foreboding and isolation.
Instead of a sense of guilt in Son One, there’s a want for vengeance, for reconciliation, both of which are viewed by the characters as blatantly futile. There is little curiosity about the murderers (Eva’s cousin and his partner), only a want, especially on Michael’s end, to see that they get their due punishment. But even when they get convicted, Michael finds no reprieve; he is still stuck in that moment, unable to return to his life. Lauryn, the murdered man’s sister, constantly reaches out for contact with her dead brother, but knows she’ll find no response. Yet, she continues seeking his guidance, knowing her disappointment is to come.
One of the most interesting aspects of Say This is how true crime media creators and fans are depicted. They are seen as extremely negative forces, and in the case of Eva Hurries Home, the true crime reporter that reaches out to Eva is verbally dominant and demeaning in a way that mirrors the way Eva’s cousin had spoken to her. Similarly, Eva’s cousin’s step-mother, who was the boy’s caretaker during the time of Eva’s affair with him, has been emotionally beaten down by the pursuit of her time and memory by true crime writers and fans. When Eva goes to visit her, she does not believe that Eva is who she says she is; she believes that Eva is a true crime writer posing as someone who knew her cousin, tragically demonstrating how this repeated prying into one’s life can create significant distrust and wariness of the outside world. The family in Son One has a similar relationship with the true crime reporters as the characters in Eva Hurries Home, too. The true crime reports are, as Jim says, “the after-the-fact assassins” (227), who prey on those involved. This perspective and depiction of true crime was new to me, and I think would be eye-opening to many readers.
Say This is a dark, investigative book that is reminiscent of the writing of Joyce Carol Oates in its honest and unrelenting exploration of taboo subjects. Eva Hurries Home and Son One are strong novellas that anyone interested in the form should read.