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Boston Sunday Globe
July 10, 2011

HEART OF THE COUNTRY

In a fraught tale of danger and abuse a rural N.H. teen struggles toward hope

By Jessica Treadway, Globe Correspondent

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo

Early in Roland Merullo's captivating new novel, "The Talk-Funny Girl,'' narrator Marjorie tells the reader, "I had learned to take my hopes by the throat and choke them almost, but not quite, to the point of death." She's had good reason, as she's been raised by abusive parents who "penance" her for imaginary sins by pouring buckets of water on her head, "hungering" her, and forcing her to dress in boys' clothes. Speaking in their own personal, idiosyncratic dialect resulting from their self-imposed isolation, the three members of the Richards family survive in the New Hampshire woods, but barely, on the disability check Marjorie's father receives for a fake back injury. When a stranger appears in town and offers the 17-year-old Marjorie a part-time, after-school job that pays $100 a week when the minimum wage has just been raised to $3.80, she understandably thinks it's too good to be true.

The stranger's name is Sands, and Marjorie's wariness is piqued by the fact that "[h]is face was not exactly the face of a white man"; the nature of the project he wants to hire her for, which is the building of his own cathedral in the center of town; and the unsolved disappearances of several teenage girls in the area during the past two years. Nevertheless, she takes the job, and comes to like and trust him. The other kids at school mock her for it (on top of the mocking they already do because she talks funny), saying that Marjorie is helping to build "a devil's chapel" or that it's "the wrong work for a girl." Her parents are also suspicious, but they can't afford - because of the money she's bringing home - to challenge Sands or to make her quit.

Halfway through the book, a family secret is revealed, allowing the reader to understand why Sands chose Marjorie to be his stonemasonry apprentice. The timing of the revelation is one of the many deft moves Merullo makes in this novel, which is his 10th work of fiction. He is adept at creating suspense, planting credible red herrings, and finally spilling the truth at just the right moment, all in Marjorie's retrospective (and no longer talk-funny) voice. The voice allows Marjorie to infuse her recollections with insights she can likely articulate only from such a chronological and emotional distance, such as: "[B]eing the talk-funny girl was a soft, ugly cushion I held close around me in every human interaction." The fact that she relates her story looking back on it also lets the reader know from the beginning where Marjorie is in her life now, so that our focus remains on the question: How did she get there? Merullo skillfully introduces enough characters and plot threads to evoke our curiosity about how Marjorie managed to survive, who she ended up marrying, and what happened to her parents, the fanatical pastor they worship, and the missing teenage girls.

Another manifestation of the author's skill is the way he avoids character stereotypes and renders the complexity of relationships that in lesser hands might come across as one-dimensional. Given the details of Marjorie's life, it would be easy for her to strike the reader as self-pitying, but she doesn't; rather, her narrative emphasizes her resourcefulness and courage.

As for her parents, Merullo could have drawn them as pure ogres, and in fact they almost are. But the father who whips Marjorie with a willow has also been known to carve her a wooden bird as a present, which, despite all he has done to hurt her, she carries as a keepsake into adulthood. Her mother emerges as the cruelest, sickest member of the family, yet she is capable of experiencing "a sentimental moment" when she finds, at the dump, a picture of a kitten in a basket, and brings it home to hang on the wall.

All the elements of the plot merge toward the end of the story in a breathless, stunning climax that feels both surprising and inevitable, causing us to appreciate all the more what Marjorie has gone through, and to feel a fresh admiration for her resilience. Her character, and the way her voice evolves, are the true triumphs of this book. When she allows herself to entertain the possibility that she might in fact be able to have a future that is not only free of torture, but filled with love and possibility, she says, "I could feel a balloon inflating inside me and it made me as afraid as anything that had happened in my life." Happily for her, she dares to set aside her fears, and dream, and it is a measure of the novel's success that we cheer for her to achieve that dream, every step along the way.

(Jessica Treadway's latest book of stories, "Please Come Back to Me,'' received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.)