Reviewed: The Crying Room, Gretchen Shirm, Transit Lounge
As a child, I sometimes went to a church where there was a crying room for children; the glass panes were strong enough to muffle the audience’s crying sounds. It would reflect them back tenfold at the crier, but would rarely silence them. The same stifled anguish is evoked in Gretchen Shirm’s The Crying Room, a collection of interwoven stories that mix speculative and realist fiction. The prevailing structure is resemblant of a mood board, a pastiche of scenes with a distinct atmosphere, as the main characters inhabit a cavernous, melancholic state compounded by the inward pressure of compressing their feelings into a performance of normality.
Motherhood and female relationships are central to The Crying Room, in particular the fractured relationship between Bernie and her daughters Allison and Susie. When Monica, Allison’s daughter, is twelve, she is sent to live with Susie, who later says ‘You saved me.’ In her life, Susie has a vague role in oncology that she describes as thus: ‘I help children to live.’ Myriad disasters befall these melancholic, heroic women, but events frequently come from left-field, deployed as anecdotes rather than being imaginatively realised; explication is left to do the heavy lifting, which tends to deprive the narrative of movement. Effusions of sadness pepper the book: ‘She saw the sadness. She had become attuned to it; she could see it move inside people like water.’ Susie watches TV ‘sadly’. An aura of sadness gushes forth from a portrait of Hemingway carrying a poached dead leopard on his shoulder. A policeman looks at a victim of sexual assault with ‘a sadness in his eyes’.
Nothing wrong with expressions of sadness of course, but the problem here is that these feel like an easy shortcut. The characters seem unable to express much else other than melancholy and guilt. Even though each chapter is told by a different character, their voices are for the most part indistinct, which result in a certain blandness. Even though Susie’s aunt, Allison, is described as ‘cunning and violent’, we don’t see her enact these qualities in a way that tells us how she is cunning and violent. Minor characters, too, are vague sketches. Susie’s lover is described almost as if he is a piece of furniture: ‘His skin was smooth and polished, and his eyes bulged like knots in wood.’ Similarly, her friend Xiyu feels like a mouthpiece to enact general migrant sentiments: ‘In this country you are very free. You may say and do anything you like. In my country it is not like that.’
In this way, Shirm’s characters lack the complexity that might make them feel lifelike—envy, shame, frustration, desire are absent. The only characters who are allowed to be unapologetically bad are men, who are regarded with waspish distain by the female characters: ‘They just took what they wanted; men around the world were fishing the sea to depletion,’ says Bernie. Allison hates ‘[…] the way they farted; the way they ate so much meat. Men, she had come to believe, were actually barbarians.’
Later, when Susie encounters a man gardening, ‘She could see—from the stain on his collar and the round lobe of his belly not quite covered by his shirt—that he was a diminished man.’ Shirm’s writing style is often lyrical and exacting, with long, sweeping cadences. Although it’s clear that Shirm is attempting the weighted style of writers such as Rachel Cusk with its clinical tone, curiosity for minor figures appears to be lacking—their depictions are surface-level and reductive.
We get the sense that the only feelings permitted in The Crying Room are those that are devastating and pure, uncomplicated by embarrassment or error, and only if they are expressed via self-effacement, as in Susie’s character: ‘She would much rather be perceived as strange than crippled by grief.’ Halfway through the novel, a whole chapter is set in strikethrough, a short story written by Monica from her mother’s perspective, emphasising the book’s concern with self-erasure. This circularity results in no real sense of change or contrast in the character arcs. Throughout the book are criticisms and marginalia about Monica’s short stories which directly reference the image of a crying room: ‘They were airless, as though they were taking place behind a pane of glass.’
This airlessness captures the kind of melancholia that sucks the air from your chest, but it tends to batten down the hatch for more complex, messy emotions that emerge when the narrator’s moral judgment is left suspended and the characters’ responses allowed to speak for themselves. It’s in these moments of ambiguity where the writing sings and the voices are more compelling. Without these, The Crying Room feels overly contained.