Well hello there, brand-new novel, and welcome to the world!
Never Coming Back, my first novel for adults in a long time, will be published on October 10, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m thrilled. For those of you who were fans of my novel Shadow Baby, the new novel stars Clara Winter, who’s 32 now and back in the Adirondacks. (And if you’re also a fan of the television game show Jeopardy, well, so are Clara and her mother, the Fearsome Tamar.)
Here’s what people are saying about Never Coming Back:
“A luminous novel.” (Kirkus)
“Never Coming Back is a deeply moving exploration of growing up and growing old, and the ties that bind parents and children – and the mysteries that sometimes keep us apart.”—Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of The Sleepwalker, Midwives, and The Sandcastle Girls
“When a parent is involved, the journey of a caregiver can take the mind back through all the bumps and beauties of a complicated relationship and the heart and soul into new and challenging territory. Alison McGhee captures this–all the nuances and conflicts–in her beautifully written novel. Much to praise here but it is the remarkable characterization of the mother, the indomitable Tamar, who McGhee paints with such feeling, that lingers for me. A wise, humane book and a very special novelist.”—George Hodgman, New York Times bestselling author of Bettyville
“Alison McGhee returns to the landscape of the Adirondacks in this beautifully devastating novel about the things that remain unspoken between parent and child. Clara Winter’s need to know what lies on the other side of her mother’s Alzheimer’s-induced silence drives this book toward its ferocious conclusion. Never Coming Back is an exquisite book, brim-full with nostalgia, love, regret, humor, yearning–and unforgettable prose.”—Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members
Never Coming Back has also been described as “book club gold.” If you’re interested in a Skype visit during your book club meeting, feel free to reach out. My email is email@example.com.
And if you’d like to pre-order a copy of Never Coming Back, here are some handy links:
Excerpt from Never Coming Back
PART ONE: Jeopardy
Now that my mother is disappearing, I wonder when it began to happen. A few months before her neighbor called to tell me something was wrong, or maybe years ago, when I was in my nomadic twenties and home only once or twice a year. Or did something inside her change in a single moment? Quit working? Decide enough was enough?
Hard to say. Hard to know.
But happen it did, and when I left the southern wild and moved back north it was not to be with her, exactly, because where exactly are you when you begin to disappear? Where do your thoughts go, and the words you once used to express them? Are they still inside you somewhere? Not that she was ever big on words to begin with, my mother.
Is big on words. Was big on words. Is. Was. Are. Were. These are the days of mixed-up tenses.
When Sylvia the nurse calls and says, She is/was agitated, she is/was looking for you, she is/was having a tough time, I can get in the car and be there in an hour. They thought my presence would help, and it does. That’s what they tell me anyway. Which is something that surprises me.
There have been many surprises.
“You’re coming back north, Clara?” Sunshine said. “Why? I mean, that’s fantastic, but why?”
“Have you forgotten that north is where winter lives?” Brown said. “The land of snow and ice? The season of your discontent?”
That was Sunshine, my best friend, and Brown, her husband and my other best friend. I pictured them sharing the phone next to their bed, both ears pressed against the receiver. They have cell phones but they still use a landline both upstairs and down. That’s what happens when you live in the Adirondacks, a place where cell service is spotty and things that elsewhere seem essential, don’t. Their phones are heavy and black, like old-time phones, because that’s what they are, old-time phones, bought at a garage sale for a dollar apiece. Sunshine and Brown like weight and heft. Or maybe what they like is permanence.
“Shut up about winter, Brown,” Sunshine said. “Don’t scare her away.”
“If she moves back north, she has to live here,” Brown said, and “Absolutely,” Sunshine said. They were talking to each other in low tones, as if I couldn’t hear them on the other end of the line. This was not uncommon.
“In Old Forge?” I said.
“Duh!” They were still speaking at the same time. They both put the same exclamation mark at the end of the Duh. I could hear it. It scrolled across the bottom of my mind, a black jumpy line with a point at the bottom. ! ! !
“Have you two merged? Become a single entity? Can you no longer speak for yourselves?”
“No, no and yes,” Sunshine said, and “Old Forge,” Brown said again. “Old Forge is where you should live.”
They knew my mother and they had known her for a long time but I hadn’t said a word to them, or to anyone, about what was happening to her, about the fact that she was the reason I was even thinking about moving back. Tell no one, my mother had said, and no one had I told, not even Sunshine and Brown. But it was late that night, and monkey mind had taken over and I was clutching my tiny silver hammer earring for luck and wandering around in the dark until I figured out what to do.
My mother is/was disappearing and I don’t/didn’t know what to do, don’t/didn’t know how to keep her with me, in this world, on this plane of existence, thinking and talking the way I have/had always known her to think and talk. Sunshine and Brown were the people I had called because they were my best friends. And because even if they were already asleep, they would answer the phone if it rang. That’s the kind of people they were.
Are. That’s the kind of people they are.
This is what happens when someone close to you starts to disappear. They are with you and then they aren’t. This happens while their hearts still beat, while their lungs still breathe, while they look directly at you. They talk and laugh and sing and then they don’t. They are here and they are gone, here and gone, are and were, simultaneously.
“Did I wake you guys up?”
“No. Kind of. Who cares.”
Both of them speaking over each other.
“Old Forge?” I said again, like it was a place I’d never been to before, a kind of mythical place that existed on another planet.
“Old Forge,” they said. “We’re here.”
“We’ll hike and cook and stack wood,” Sunshine said. “We’ll get breakfast at Walt’s Diner. Brown will write his code and I’ll sell my hats and you can do your Words by Winter thing –you can make a living at that, can’t you?—and maybe write another book. It’s been a long time since The Old Man was published.”
“No to writing another book. And yes, I can make a living at Words by Winter.”
“Good,” she said, in a soothing motherish way, “very good.”
“We can all visit The Fearsome together,” Brown said. The Fearsome was his nickname for my mother. “Serenade her with Leonard Cohen songs, eat our dinner out of jars with cocktail forks, help her deadhead her geraniums. We’ll protect you from her and her from you, more to the point. Unless you’re planning to move in with her in Sterns?”
“Not an option.”
“Didn’t think so. Then Old Forge it is. Come on home.”
“Old Forge isn’t home.”
“It’s half an hour north of Sterns. That makes it home-ish.”
Old Forge, where my mother used to take me once a year, in the summer. We went swimming in Fourth Lake, we had pancakes at Keye’s Pancake House, we spent hours wandering through the multi-roomed palace of Adirondack Hardware. We went to the water park where once, another mother, a mother who wasn’t my mother, took a Polaroid picture of me sitting inside Cinderella’s giant pumpkin and gave it to us. Old Forge was our big summer adventure. Now I think, why did we go only once a year? Half an hour from North Sterns, we could have gone there every week if we wanted, every day for God’s sake.
“Old Forget,” I said. “That’s what I used to call it, when I was a kid. I used to think of it as this magical place.”
“It is a magical place,” Sunshine said. “We’re magical, aren’t we? And we’re here. Come home, Clara.”
“Yeah,” Brown said. “Come home-ish.”
So home-ish I came.
That particular phone call happened a few months after the day I first noticed anything. I had come home for a long weekend, opened the kitchen cupboard to get a coffee mug and there was a carton of orange juice, tucked between the plates and bowls, both of which had been pushed aside to make room for it.
“Hey there Mister Orange Juice,” I said. “Too cold in the fridge for you?”
I picked Mister Orange Juice up and carried him out to the dining room, where my mother was deadheading her indoor geraniums. One October years ago she had uprooted them, transplanted them into buckets and moved them inside to keep them safe from the cold, and then in the course of that long upstate New York winter decided they were happier inside than outside.
She looked up, her hands full of withered blossoms, and shook her head. “No. You know I don’t like orange juice. Too sweet. I got that for you.”
“I found it in the dishes cupboard.”
“What are you talking about?”
I jiggled the carton. “This. It was between the bowls and plates.”
“Stop,” she said, frowning. Still shaking her head. “Put it back where it belongs. Orange juice is expensive.”
It was then that a weird feeling came over me. When I remember that moment now I can still feel the heaviness of the carton in my hand, how I had to spread my fingers out to hold it so it wouldn’t fall, how it was room temperature and not cold the way you expect orange juice to be. I can still see the frown on her face, the way she glanced from the faded red and pink flowers in her hands back to me. I can still feel my other hand, shoving itself by instinct down into the pocket of my jeans to close around the silver hammer earring, the talisman that is always with me to keep bad things from happening.
“It was in the dishes cupboard,” I said again. This annoyed her.
“Stop it, Clara. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Had my mother ever, even once in her life, said If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all? She had not. Plenty of other mothers said that –I had heard it from other mothers all my life, directed at their own children in that singsong mother voice—but not from my own. Had you asked me, I would have bet every bit of money I had that my mother had not and would not ever utter that line. What did that sentence have to do with this orange juice situation anyway? The weird feeling spread.
What was I hoping she’d do? Laugh, because what she’d just said was such a non-her thing to say? Turn it into a joke? My mother was not the joking type and never had been. Was I hoping that she would come up with some kind of an explanation, maybe explain that the orange juice in the cabinet was part of an elaborate ruse, and then explain what exactly that ruse was? Yes. That’s what I was hoping for. Because knowledge –of wrongness, of something-is-not-rightness—was creeping up from my feet, spreading through my body, on its way to my heart and from there to my mind.
I had come home for the weekend because it was her birthday.
She was about to turn 50.
I was 31.
If you’re doing the math, that’s right: My mother was 18 years old when she had me. And if you’re doing more math, you might be thinking that 49 years old is too young for what they told us she had. Way too young. Young young young young young is what my mother was, when we heard those words “early” and “onset.”
And now she is 51 and I am 32 and let me tell you something, people, it goes fast. How fast it goes.
The cabin on Turnip Hill Road that I bought when I moved back home-ish to the Adirondacks is one room. Two hundred and fifty square feet, which spelled out like that looks bigger than 250. The first time Sunshine and Brown came to see the cabin I sat in the porch chair, angled because the porch is so narrow, and waited while their station wagon picked its way around the curve and up the dirt driveway.
“But there’s no room for anyone but you,” Sunshine said. “You and your computer.”
Her voice was full of wonder. She peered through the door as if she were in a museum looking at a diorama.
“Why so tiny?” Brown said, his eyes lit up, as if there had to be a fascinating reason.
But there wasn’t. If there was a reason at all it was about excess, the existence of it and the not wanting it. It was about not having room for anything more than was physically in the cabin. Because there was already something huge in my non-physical life, something that couldn’t be wrestled down into something manageable, something handle-able.
Sunshine and Brown stepped inside the single room and stood on either side of the ladder that led to the sleeping loft and looked around. They didn’t touch anything, that first visit. It must have looked like a dollhouse. Like a museum. Everything perfectly in its place because there were so few places for anything. Two towels, one in use and one hung over the door to dry. Three pairs of socks in a drawer with two shirts and two pairs of jeans. No waffle iron, no hair dryer, no cupboards filled with dishes and pots and pans. A half-full bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on top of the miniature fridge next to the miniature stove next to a small blue ceramic jug that holds the ashes of Dog.
“Nothing in excess, I see,” Brown said.
“Except books,” Sunshine said. “Books are definitely in excess.”
They were talking to each other as if I weren’t right there in the room with them.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but is that coffee table made of books?”
“It is. So is that lampstand.”
“So is this dining table,” Brown said. He crouched to examine the construction of my table. A piece of plywood set on four cornered stacks of books, with another stack in the middle for extra support. He gave the plywood an experimental push. It slid, but not much. Plywood is heavier than you’d think.
“Oh my God, Brown,” Sunshine said. She had climbed up in the sleeping loft. “Get up here and take a look at her bed. She’s literally sleeping with books. On books. Books as box spring.”
“Hello,” I said. “Hello? I’m right here. I can hear you.”
They ignored me.
“How do I love thee, books?” Brown said. “Let me count the ways.”
“Her one true love,” Sunshine said. “Some things do not change.”
I lifted the bottle of Jack from its perch and went out onto the porch to wait until they finished with their self-guided tour. It’s a monument to minimalism, I heard Brown say from the sleeping loft, and She’s winnowed, Sunshine said, but isn’t she too young to be winnowed? Winnow, winnowing, winnowed, which is a word that sounds like widowed. Once you start giving things up, it becomes easy. Or easier.
Not everything, though. Not everything can be given up.
If my mother cannot remain the same, then something else must. That first little fool of a pig built a house of straw, and the second pig built one of sticks, and down they both came. But the third little pig, that little pig built a house of bricks, and it stood.
Books are something real. Books are something true. Books will be my bricks.