The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Title: The Coffins of Little Hope
Author: Timothy Schaffert
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Unbridled Books, 2011
Source: Received from NetGalley

The Coffins of Little Hope ties together three threads of life in a small town. First, we have our narrator, Essie - an obituary writer, sharp and witty, dealing with old age and her nontraditional family. Then we have the secret printing of the final novel in a popular YA series (think Harry Potter status), which has the whole town fascinated. Finally, we have Daisy, abandoned by her lover, who she claims has kidnapped her daughter Lenore.

First off, pretty points for the cover.

To be concise, to me this book was short, charming, and bizarre. The chapters were succinct and to the point - Essie related discrete snapshots of scenes meant to convey meaning into a more harmonious whole. Charming, in that the writing was excellent and Essie was a fantastic narrator, full of attitude and quirkiness. For example, she wears a dragonfly pin in her hair every single day, keeps a file folder of obituaries for people who haven't died yet but probably will soon, and spends days at her late husband's hospital after he passed away to revel in the familiarity and hang onto his life. She could be heartbreaking, but won't be, instead embracing life with gusto. The book is bizarre in that I still don't understand how everything is supposed to fit together. I feel as if the ends have all been left loose and slightly disconnected. There are a few little tendrils of similarity between the threads, but I don't completely see how they are meant to complement each other. This is probably because I am unsophisticated and braindead from making chai lattes and caramel macchiatos for the last eight hours.

The main themes I was able to extract from the story were a) appearances are always deceiving, but that deception can wrap life in a mystery that isn't entirely negative, and b) things always change. The moments you love are not static, and may bring disappointment, but may also bring something better. I am not sure if this was Schaffert's intent, but those are the main messages that seemed common to all three threads of the narrative.

I occasionally lost sense of the chronology of the book. Essie would be describing her life, then talk about a visit with Daisy, or a conversation with Ivy, and I would be thinking that the conversation followed what Essie had been talking about previously, and then I would realize that the conversation had actually taken place months before and Essie was simply having a flashback. Other than that, I thought the writing was charming and beautiful. I appreciate the originality of Essie's voice - her black humor, her refusal to truly grow old (reflected in the final words of the novel), her taste for the simple things in life. I also enjoyed the vivid little world Schaffert built in the small town. There are several characters that are only mentioned in passing, but their position in the intricate hierarchy of the little town and their most striking character traits, described offhandedly, made them memorable.

For me this book was enjoyable, but a little puzzling. As I said before, I enjoyed it, but feel as if I didn't quite connect with what the author was trying to accomplish. I am not sure if this is because I am unsophisticated or because he was intentionally being obscure - in a way this would add to the theme of situations always being more than they seemed in the novel. If you don't mind a puzzling read or have a deep appreciation of snappy, refreshing narrators, you will probably enjoy The Coffins of Little Hope. If, like me, you like things a little more cut and dried, you will probably somewhat enjoy it, but may walk away wanting more.

3 stars

1 comment:

  1. This sounds kinda funky and interesting... I'll grab it if I see it at the library.


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