Sometimes a story haunts you. The prose leaves you raw, defying you to articulate what the book is because it feels too immense. Sarah Elaine Smith’s debut novel, Marilou Is Everywhere, is such a book.
The novel revolves around Cindy, who’s in 9th grade when her brother Virgil’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Jude, vanishes. Or rather, Cindy is supposed to be in 9th grade, but she’s stopped going to school since her mother left her and her brothers alone in their rural Pennsylvania farmhouse…again. The boys (Virgil is past high school age and Clinton dropped out) work odd jobs while Cindy stays home. But when Jude goes missing, Virgil tries to help Jude’s alcoholic and mentally unwell mother, Bernadette.
Virgil suggests that Cindy should pose as Jude as a way to keep Bernadette calm. Despite Jude being the only black girl in town and Cindy being a white girl about three years her junior, the plan works. Cindy slips into Jude’s life—until a phone call reminds Cindy that she’s taken the place of a real person who is in real danger.
Written in Smith’s evocative prose, Cindy’s voice is remarkable. She describes her life before Bernadette as “all dust and no song” and hashes through events in a near stream-of-consciousness style that calls to mind a magpie’s nest of references, vocabulary and points of view. Her home life is solitary and insular, but as Jude, she’s exposed to a new world through literature, film and Bernadette’s stories. Cindy is bolder, smarter, more assertive in Jude’s realm, but the strange existence she carves out can’t last.
Race isn’t a central facet of the plot, despite frequent descriptions of Jude as a young woman of color. It’s one of very few moves that feels like a misstep; the weight of a white girl assuming Jude’s identity could have been more deeply explored. Even though Smith makes clear that Jude’s race impacts the investigation and assumptions made in her absence, Jude feels like a void in which a reader can get trapped looking for more meaning.
Smith succeeds in capturing the intricacies of poverty empathy, which makes the novel a particularly heartbreaking read. Cindy is the heart of the story, and Smith picks apart the cruelties of neglect and the power of simple kindnesses in the character’s life. Early on, Cindy seems forgotten by all but Virgil, a ghost who fills her days by observing but not taking part. Bernadette’s faintest motherly qualities—touching Cindy’s shoulder, making her food—are a stark change for the girl whose mom is no less present when she’s around than when she’s absent.
But Cindy’s life with Bernadette is challenging, defined by Bernadette’s delusions and volatility. And her life is hard at home, when her mom returns and this new Cindy, who has read broadly and eaten figs, finds herself struggling to adjust back into the rhythm of the life she once faded into the background of.
Marilou Is Everywhere delivers a quiet novel about an antiheroine who challenges the reader to both judge and accept her. It’s startling and stunning, promising no easy answers. In her unflinching embrace of that ambiguity, Smith has created an enthralling work.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.