Writing fiction about childhood is like trying to pluck flowers from a minefield. In her debut novel, The Tiny One, Eliza Minot deftly navigates this treacherous landscape. Some will undoubtedly argue that she does so by following the footsteps of her older sister, Susan Minot, whose novel Monkeys covered similar territory. Like Monkeys, The Tiny One concerns a large, affluent Catholic family from Boston’s north shore. They are a walking Abercrombie ad—taking vacations in Maine and Bermuda in the summer, ski trips to New Hampshire in the winter. In both novels, everything falls apart when “Mum,” the goofy, tender, emotional center of the clan, dies in a freak car accident. But here the two novels diverge. While Monkeys uses this tragedy to dramatize the complexities of family life, The Tiny One barely gets caught in such Cheever-esque undercurrents. Rather, it zeroes in on how the family’s youngest member, clearly Minot’s doppelgänger, attempts to deal with her loss. What emerges is a stunning if sometimes flawed examination of grief through the eyes and, most impressively, the voice of a child.
The Tiny One opens moments before Mum’s funeral. In an oppressively sentimental tone, a third-person narrator introduces Via Revere, the 11-year-old girl who soon becomes the novel’s narrator. “Mum’s dead forever,” Via begins in chapter two, showing no lack of comprehension. “I want to be able to find something in that day to hold on to like a rope swing, to swing with.” Thus, Via begins to recall the day of the crash, describing each hour with the fidgety, talkative patter of a fourth-grader. It’s striking how normal, unfettered, and undeniably pleasurable her activities seem, even in the shadow of the accident. Via recalls how she watched cartoons that morning, ate Sugar Pops, and then brushed her teeth to the tune of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” about which she boasts, “I can do it really good if I sort of move the shape of my mouth.” When she describes the school day, Via painstakingly walks us through her classes—art, social studies, recess—as if in their quotidian details she could divine something essential.
Either Minot has spent a lot of time with 11-year-olds, or she is in fact a fourth-grade prodigy carefully disguised by Jerry Bauer’s author photo. She remembers the way left-handed scissors had that orange rubber stuff on them, the way claymation figurines seemed so edible, the plastic taste of water shot out of a squirt gun, and the delicious smell of hockey gloves smacked in the winter time. Even more impressive is the way Minot captures a fourth-grader’s pint-sized attention span. Except for a few narrative slips, where Via’s lyricism transcends her years, literature has not met a more realistically portrayed adolescent.
On top of signaling the authenticity of Via’s narrative, these chubby pencil grips and product names act like Proust’s madeleines. While the novel’s chapters are labeled after periods of the day—”Bath, Recess, 10:00 Art Class”—they operate more like leaping-off points for Via’s many flights back to pre-accident life. Through her accidental lyricism, we smell “the wet sunned cement” around the pool in Maine where she swam slathered in Off!; we see the “rattly, knuckled trees” that loom over the Revere house; the way Via’s siblings, Marly, Cy, and Pete, sway benevolently above her; and most of all, we hear the loving coos and inventive terms of endearment Via’s mother used to utter to her. Some of these snapshots have the cloying cuteness of a puppy calendar. Others—how her mother once soothed her to bed or engaged in the kind of nonsense a child obliges—are portrayed more subtly, and bring home the weight of Via’s loss.
Eventually, because it keeps piling one memory on top of another with no real direction, The Tiny One struggles with its Proustian largesse. As the novel approaches closure, we should be lamenting Via’s loss; instead, Minot has us wishing it had occurred sooner—we’ve passed the point of caring. Had she put a more ruthless shear to this book, Minot may have emerged with a cleaner, tighter story, but perhaps one not so honest in its depiction of grief’s messy galaxy. In this regard, The Tiny One feels less like a novel than a brilliantly overstuffed scrapbook whose owner couldn’t bear to part with one picture.