Ramshackle by Elizabeth Reeder


Locks and Keys

Ramshackle by name, but certainly not by nature. This debut novel by Chicago-born Elizabeth Reeder (now living in Scotland) is a tightly-drawn, well-constructed and beautifully layered work.

Given Reeder’s roots, it was not surprising to find in Ramshackle some elements of one of the great American novels – Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There is the suburban setting, the feisty young female protagonist, the beloved lone father, that mysterious house next door. But Reeder moves on very quickly to imprint her own atmospheric style of storytelling on the classic American Bildungsroman.

Rather than humid and sultry Alabama, we have here a freezing cold Illinois winter in a lakeside Chicago neighbourhood. At fifteen years old, Ramshackle’s protagonist, Roe Davis, is much older than Lee’s Scout. And unlike the heroic, ever-present Atticus Finch, Roe’s adoptive father has disappeared after the first page. It is Roe’s sense of abandonment at being left alone not only by her sole carer, but also in the past by her birth mother that helps drive the narrative thrust of this novel. However, if a suddenly absent father-figure wasn’t enough for poor Roe, Reeder also throws several other traumatic events at her main character. The teenager is flunking classes at school, she has just lost her virginity to her rugby-playing boyfriend, she discovers her best friend is being physically abused, she feels it her personal responsibility to prevent the bulldozing of that mysterious house next door. Reeder manages to balance all these various threads in a subtle, understated way through a strong sense of character, place and language.

Reeder’s style is sparse and atmospheric. Her dialogues are short and demonstrate a remarkable ear for authentic teenage conversation. The brief sex scenes are handled with delicacy and tenderness. There is hardly a word out of place, the writing is so well-honed. Even when the reader thinks they are being taken down a well-worn path of humdrum description, there’s always something punchy waiting at the end as in: “My first baseball bat, it’s nicked and old at the handle like someone has chewed on it with frustration”.

Reeder plays on the fact that Roe’s adoptive father is a master locksmith. At a physical level, Roe is surrounded by the locks and keys and cabinets of her father’s craft. On a metaphorical level, the reader follows Roe’s journey as she tries to find the keys to her own past and future, unpicks the locks of her relationships, makes decisions about which doors she should close, open and step through.

Ramshackle is an accomplished, eminently readable novel. If there was one criticism to be levied against it, it would be that while the ending is a satisfying one, after only 160 pages it comes too soon. Reeder has created so many wonderful characters here not only in Roe but also in her absent father, her ‘aunt’ Linden and best-friend Jess, that it is a shame that the reader cannot spend more time with them. That aside, like her fictitious master locksmith, Reeder is confident and creative with her craft, something of a perfectionist. It is hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. One can only assume there are quite a few trial locks and keys lying at the bottom of some drawer somewhere. Ramshackle is a welcome addition to what could be a new Renaissance in Scottish writing that is finally embracing the talents of authors from many different cultures taking up residence here. It is heartening to see small independent publishers like Freight (also the publisher of this magazine) becoming the showcase for such writers.

Tarka the Otter

Elizabeth Reeder
Freight Books, rrp £8•99, 176pp