An Archive of Happiness by Elizabeth Reeder
Published by Penned in the Margins on 15th September
Available from all Good Bookshops or Online
What They Say
An Archive of Happiness is set in the Scottish Highlands over the course of one day during the Avens familys annual get-together. Its the summer solstice and theirs is a fractured family, broken by arguments, by things said and not said, by a mother who has left and a father who was left behind. What happens on this day will force them to cleave together to survive and redraw the traditional bonds of family.
What I Say
As soon as I heard about Elizabeth Reeder’s novel, I was immediately intrigued, as a fractured family coming together for one day is something that always draws me to novels. As I have a very small family, geographically distanced, and with our own personal challenges, getting us all together is not a common event.
In this novel, it is clear that the Avens family may be separated too, but that the familial bond, fuelled by childhood disappointments and issues that have dogged them for years, draws them back together more tightly than they could ever have envisioned.
The story seemingly takes place over one day, but in fact the novel is made up of all their life stories, the choices they have made and the lives they have lived until this point. When the plot culminates in them coming together one Summer Solstice Day – it paves the way for a tragic event that will mean they have to come together and face the world as a united family.
The Avens family we meet is made up of very different characters. The father Sonny, the mother Viv who one day simply disappears, and their children Ben, Nic and April. Viv’s sister Grace also lives nearby and has become a surrogate mother to the children, and a shoulder to lean on for Sonny, who has struggled with the challenges of looking after three children on his own. The ramifications of Viv’s disappearance affects each child in very different ways, and is felt intensely by each of them, although they show it differently.
Ben we learn was physically assaulted by Viv and he retaliated. His life after her leaving is peppered with anger and his inability to settle, and his sensitivity and unhappiness and distance from his Dad at one point led him to attempt suicide – when his sister covered for him.
Nic has a determination to lead her own life and is fiercely independent. She decides to buy a Croft on her own, and wants to set herself up in business fixing and designing tools. Even when she meets Charlie, her future husband, she is insistent that she does what she wants, and will not be limited by other people’s expectations.
April and Nic have always been close, and after not being able to find a job April likes, she has started working in a local pub, and has found her own happiness and talent in working there. She has also met someone – Col, who is going through his own challenges and is quietly undergoing his own personal transformation.
As the novel moves through the day to the time when the family are due to meet up, each chapter has a timeline at the top with the current time in bold lettering, and also there are clock symbols depicting the current time through certain chapters. This stylistically gives a sense for the reader as to where we are in the day. Right from the start, you are aware that something momentous is going to happen – you don’t know when and how. Elizabeth Reeder pushes and pulls the reader through different times – the past, the present and the future, and the only way you know this is by looking at the clock and the chapter headings. It serves to bring you closer to the characters as each time shift tells us more about them.
At times, this can be slightly disorientating – you have to concentrate and I found myself trying to focus where I was in terms of the time of the characters stories. However, I think this works, because it also gives the story that sense of how our memories and recollections work. We may start at one place and find ourselves somewhere totally different- but the fact of the matter is that this is what our memories of families are – disjointed, sprawling, true and unique to each of us.
It is impossible to talk about this novel without acknowledging it is firmly rooted in the natural world, and the Avens family’s daily lives and experiences are absolutely intertwined with the environment around them. The language is poetic, the descriptions of the landscape and the weather are evocative and you feel you could lose yourself in this world. There is always the sense of the magnitude of nature, and how insignificant we are, but this is balanced by the fact that the characters also feel hemmed in at times by this place, and the need to forge their own identities.
An Archive of Happiness is a novel that for me defies categorisation. There are so many different themes carried throughout the pages – love, grief, parenting, anger and LGBTQ are just some of them. The thing is, it works well because they are integrated seamlessly into the plot, and I genuinely liked all the main characters too. They felt real, relatable and you understood why they did what they did – and at times your heart aches for them. There is a huge life changing event for all of them – (no, I’m not going to tell you) and this not only was totally unexpected, but was also the very thing that made everyone realise how crucial they really all are to each other’s lives and happiness.
If you love novels that are not usual linear narratives, and really push the reader in terms of emotional connection and an understanding of the inner workings of a real family, this is just the novel you are looking for.
Thank you so much to Kate at Penned In The Margins, for my gifted proof copy in exchange for a review.