When we first meet Elvis Babbitt, she is 10 years old and has just lost her mother, Eva, a college professor and “sleepswimmer” who appears to have drowned during a noctural turn in a nearby river.
“Rabbit Cake,’’ Annie Hartnett’s darkly funny and soulful debut, follows Elvis as she struggles to puzzle out her grief and the circumstances of her mother’s death with the rigor of a scientist tackling a hypothesis.
It is a mystery. Eva’s butterfly strokes typically took place under the watchful eye of Elvis’s father, Frank, and the family’s border collie Boomer, who would awaken Frank to perform their duties as lifeguards. Except on this night. “[H]er cause of death felt out of character, unlikely and suspicious somehow,” Elvis explains.“I wanted to know what happened that night. Everything was terrible and uncertain without her.”
Elvis meanwhile seeks solace in animals. Besides Boomer, she befriends the diverse occupants of a zoo near her small Alabama town and acquaints herself with countless other species through extensive personal research.
The people in Elvis’s world are just not as reliable as the animals whose behaviors she has memorized, but to her, they prove as essential, particularly her well-meaning but spacey father Frank, who owns a carpet store, and her teenage sister, Lizzie, a beautiful firebrand who sleepwalks and sleep eats. Through Elvis’s memories and realizations, Eva remains a confident and unflappable presence in her life and in the book.
Elvis (named by her mother who believed in reincarnation and that her daughter was “the king’’) tells the story of her family’s struggles from the vantage of two years after her mother’s death, and the novel is broken into sections with the months labeled.
This coincides with the 18-month grief timeline given to Elvis by her eccentric guidance counselor Ms. Bernstein. Elvis tapes the chart to her bedroom wall and refers to it constantly — she’s in a competition with her own sorrow, hoping to solve the mystery of what happened to her mother before it’s time to stop missing her and she becomes “abnormal.”
In between observing her sister’s sleepwalking and comforting her father, Elvis interviews the local coroner, consults Eva’s unfinished manuscript on animal’s sleep habits, and educates herself on brain tumors, adultery, and suicide. She believes there is some harder truth at work, refusing to accept the simple narrative the rest of the world seems content with.
There’s much black comedy (Elvis jokes she’d love to be able to tell her mom that “there’s something fishy about your death.’’) and a surrealist quality to Hartnett’s writing, due partly to the totally original quirks of her characters: the sleepwalking Babbitt women, Frank’s ardor for a parrot who mimics his dead wife’s voice, Eva’s old psychic Miss Ida, who predicted she would one day kill herself, and Ms. Bernstein, whose hilarious sessions with Elvis are about as therapeutic as a psychoanalysis scene in a Woody Allen movie.
All these traits are filtered through Elvis’s colorful preteen imagination (Hartnett originally conceived of the book as a YA novel), incisive if incompletely comprehended insights, and her particular way of reflecting her heartache through the prism of the natural world. “My father was at home breathing in Mom’s spirit at night like a spider creeping down his throat,” Elvis observes. Instead of admitting she’s sad, she says she feels “[l]ike a bee sting.”
Hartnett imbues Elvis with that capacity to be both self-aware and childlike that places her in a tradition of independent minded, motherless heroines — from Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ to the eponymous “Ellen Foster,’’ and Ruth from “Housekeeping.’’
Like her peers, Elvis, too, is wholly herself: Flawed and funny, she yearns to understand the world around her and is constantly disappointed that her emotional intelligence hasn’t quite caught up to her braininess. “Rabbit Cake’’ is Elvis’s unpredictable story of healing, and the young woman at its center is immediately loveable because she is delightfully human. Or, as she would aptly put it, “I was my own animal now.”
By Annie Hartnett
Tin House, 344 pp., paperback, $15.95
Sharon Steel is a writer living in New York City. Read more of her work at sharoncsteel.com.