Jenny Offill – Dept. of speculation

My reading has been somewhat scattered lately, but now I’m thrilled to have successfully steered my way towards the end of a book. Its name is Dept. of speculation by American writer Jenny Offill and it’s been keeping me company these past weeks, or I it. On at least three occasions I said to myself Why don’t you just sit down, concentrate for two or three hours and breeze through this flimsy paperback? Because Dept. of speculation is not that kind of book, that’s why. It’s meant to be digested slowly. Read too quickly and you’d skip over some of the depths this book has to offer. Fortunately, slowness has been my portion lately and Jenny and I have become good friends.

A slice of life, Dept. of speculation, but a wholesome one. A young woman – vague artistic ambitions, New York, teaching job – finds herself married and the mother of a girl. Husband is a decent bloke, the girl a source of joy, or so the woman would like to believe. In fact, motherhood is smothering her and the initial joys of marriage are hard to remember. Is there place for artistic ambitions when sleepless nights have numbed you? And what good is there in marriage when most of your conversations are whispered arguments?

You’d think Dept. of speculation is a bleak book from this description, but I found something to laugh about on almost every page. Jenny Offill has such a remarkably matter-of-fact way of turning a phrase that you might be allowed to think the whole book is just a wonderfully structured collection of aphorisms. And it’s true, open the book on a random page and you’ll see a sentence you’ll want to underline or quote to an innocent colleague. On the other hand, Offill does manage to create a strong sense of narrative flow. Because of the book’s structure into short chapters and short paragraphs you can exit this narrative at any point and easily rejoin the flow when you feel like it.

Would we call this book literary? Yes, definitely. Would we call this book difficult, then? No, not difficult. In fact, Dept. of speculation tells quite a universal story which we can easily relate to. That is the strength of this book. Jenny Offill has found a highly original way of telling a story we think we know already.

Thank you Mrs K. for lending me your copy of Dept. of speculation and eventually persuading me to read it. I shall now go out and buy my own, because re-reading might be in order.

Granta Books, 2015
Nederlandse editie: Verbroken beloftes, De Geus, 2015. Vertaald door Roos van de Wardt.


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