In books, TV shows and movies alike, an unreliable narrator can be baffling and frustrating…or exciting and engaging. The Center of Everything, a new novel by Jamie Harrison (The Widow Nash), fits snuggly in the latter category.
The summer of 2002 finds Polly, a 42-year-old from small-town Montana, at a crossroads: After being sideswiped by a car while riding her bike, she’s dealing with the effects of a head injury that’s scattered her perception of the present, and brought to the surface long-forgotten events. She (along with those around her—her mother, in particular) can’t help but question the authenticity of her thoughts and memories. It’s a disorienting and painful experience that could, in the hands of a less skilled writer, be, well, kinda depressing. Harrison, however, makes it impossible not only to root for Polly, but to genuinely need to unravel the mystery of her life.
As Polly attempts to make sense of what’s going on in her mind and distinguish dreams from memories, two simultaneous events add even more stress to her plate: The first, a 90th birthday party for her great aunt Maude; the other the drowning, under possibly suspicious circumstances, of Ariel, a young woman who’s a favorite babysitter of Polly’s two kids.
Still, rather than dealing in twists and turns, Harrison’s talent lies in her rich characterizations and descriptions. Of her protagonist’s condition, she writes, “Polly thought her mind was a river, constantly scouring and pooling, constantly disappearing, filling with details that glinted and vanished.” And throughout, portrayals of the seemingly mundane things that make up a life—meals prepared and shared, quotidian conversations with children or parents—are elevated by the author's knack for chronicling our shared experiences.
Between Polly’s fragmented thoughts and Harrison’s rich descriptions of the wild beauty of Montana, The Center of Everything does have a dreamlike quality. Still, its reflections on complex family relationships, the occasional unreliability of memory and the secrets we keep to protect ourselves and others ground it firmly in reality.