This Is Your Life was one of T.V.’s earliest reality shows. Heavily choreographed and notoriously sentimental, it was a weekly salute to the life of one lucky person. Some subjects were famous, others not—the show’s unifying idea that life could be ordered, explained, and dramatized on T.V.. On This Is Your Life, the world made sense. There were always happy endings. The show was tailor-made for America in the 1950’s.
Still recovering from the violence and depravity of World War II—but emboldened and energized by its victory—America was feeling its oats as a superpower; the high, nuclear terror of the Cold War’s zenith still in the future. America’s victory in the war was proof that good would always win, that God would always be looking out for us. It was the beginning of a sort of national faerie tale some of us cling to today.
In many ways, Jonathan Evison’s This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a response to the mid-century American faerie tale. Stripped completely of the T.V. show’s hallmark sentimentality, Evison’s fourth novel is witty, not bland; knowing rather than saccharine sweet; wise instead of clichéd. From his intrusive narrator to his playful, Dickensian use of the metaphysical, Evison’s juxtaposition of literary color with a show cast in black and white presents a core irony that highlights the changes Harriet and America will undergo during her lifetime. Most significant among these is the advent of feminism, and with it the realization of other selves that might have been Harriet’s had she been the product of a time more like our own.
Born in 1936, a girl who came of age during World War II and grew to adulthood in the magically-placid fifties, Harriet is a widowed housewife who once dreamed of being an attorney, a seemingly proper woman with more than a few secrets. Her days a regimented haze of precise calorie counts and appointments planned months in advance, Harriet marches into late life uncertain of her place in the world.
Alternately troubled and comforted by memories of her husband, Bernard, and their life together, Harriet also has to contend with Bernard’s restless spirit who insists on communicating with her from the great beyond. As the book opens, Harriet is dealing with the way Bernard’s appearances impact her physical reality, producing effects she must explain to friends and acquaintances (a misplaced can of WD-40, moved slippers, etc.). More than that, she’s dealing with the obvious complication: no one, including the parish priest, buys a whit of it. Well, almost no one. The reader believes it. And with good reason. Within the confines of the novel, it’s indisputably true.
Told as the book is in third person omniscient, there’s never any doubt about whether Bernard’s spirit is actually communicating with Harriet. We see him doing it in-scene on multiple occasions. We even see Bernard in-scene without Harriet, bucking the instructions of Mr. Charmichael, his Chief transition officer in Purgatory, threatening his chances for heavenly ascension in the process. Bernard has his reasons, though. After their life together—or perhaps because of their life together—he has things to communicate to Harriet. Truths left untold, wisdom thus unlearned. He’s not the only one.
From Harriet’s children to her friends, the strangers she encounters on the Alaskan cruise that forms the story’s backbone, and even our narrator, everyone seems to be trying to tell Harriet something. The problem being they’re not entirely sure what it is they’re trying to say. And this becomes one of the book’s primary themes—the idea that real honesty is an acceptance of one’s lack of understanding, rather than a sudden rush of enlightenment.
Truth doesn’t bring the easy, sentimental answers that were so common to programs like This Is Your Life. Those shows and the version of America that went with them were lies. Self-congratulatory and devoid of purpose besides the perpetuation of clichés, they peddled the idea that life could be understood, that it represented a navigable path, a course ever-seeking some bright North Star.
But there are no North Stars for Harriet Chance. Every one she imagined—and there were many—wound up a counterfeit. Even her relationships with husband, friends, and children fall into this category, or at least show the effects of Harriet’s humanity, the trap from which none of us escape. Life’s not easy. Even when we’re lucky, it makes only the slightest and most fleeting of sense.
In spite of its honesty—an honesty that, at times, you might even call brutal—Evison’s is a bright book, not a dark one. Never weighed down by its topicality or lacking in humor, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! puts off a sort of freeing energy, a feeling of peace for its characters and readers. Wit and empathy, easy lyricality and elegant construction—these are Jonathan Evison’s strengths as a writer. They’re all here. But there’s truth here, too; lest we forget we live in the real world, not the kindly-lit soundstage of some American faerie tale.