‘If Lyrics Alley was a Middle Eastern literary soap opera, Carry the One is its American sister’ – Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

carry the oneCarry the One starts with a shotgun wedding. Carmen and Matt have decided to give it their best shot, and they are starting their life together in a farmhouse turned artist collective in the middle of the US Midwest countryside. At the end of the party, Carmen’s extremely stoned brother Nick gets into the car with his equally stoned girlfriend Olivia in the driver’s seat. In the back are musician Tom, Nick and Carmen’s sister Alice, and Matt’s sister Maude (these last two are having a one night stand, which will become an on-off relationship lasting years). The car doesn’t get far before hitting a ten-year-old girl who is inexplicably wandering around in the middle of the night. The girl dies, but in some way leaves her impression on everyone involved.

The number of words needed to adequately summarise what is essentially a simple, although tragic, event gives a hint of Carry the One’s intricacy. There isn’t much of a plot –the next paragraph probably already gives away too much – in a way the accident is just a device to connect the lives of these people so that we can follow them over the next 25 years of their lives.

“I think we altered what was supposed to happen. And we can’t go back and make it happen right. So we’re stuck in some kind of endless loop, trying to improve the past. Which, as you might notice, is resistant to revision”.

So, we get an artist who little by little becomes rich and famous (Alice), an activist who gets her ear burnt off during the call of duty (Carmen), a one-year-old vegetarian by choice (Gabe), an irredeemable junkie (Nick), an adopter of two Nigerian girls and a Romanian baby (Matt), a wife who gets left for her son’s nineteen year old babysitter (Carmen), a girl unhealthily obsessed with a moderately successful actress who can’t decide if she’s lesbian or not (Alice) and an award winning astronomer (Nick). Anorexia, death and extreme religion get walk on parts.

I’m going to echo pretty much every other review of this book by saying that the characters are excellent. They are so believable that you can almost forgive the utter improbability of such a collection of people existing. While the characteristics by themselves are all quite reasonable, I guess there aren’t that many families who manage to accumulate so many of them. Or else I really need to get out and see more of the world because my friends are boring.

I also enjoyed Anshaw’s turns of phrase (after the accident Alice “found she was the top human in a pancake stack of three”) as well as her appreciation for life’s ironic little jokes (Carmen’s husband leaves her for the nineteen year old babysitter, who is “more religious”, wears home-sewn clothes patterned with small flower prints and enjoys knitting).

“She was being a hideous snob, she realized, particularly for someone who got left by a guy she thought she was doing fine with… This was a guy she’d probably be lucky to get, and before he had even put himself forward she was already rejecting him. The social road ahead looked like a bleak highway, post-apocalyptic, overblown with dust, gray and lifeless except for mutants popping up here and there”

The ending is strange, but funnily enough it fades into insignificance looking back at the book as a whole. Carry the One is intricate, even complex, but never confusing. The seeds of the plot are sown and reaped later. The ends get tied up, but not neatly. The structure is there, but it’s messy, providing coherence without taking over. Very clever.

Any cop? If Lyrics Alley was a Middle Eastern literary soap opera, Carry the One is its American sister. I oscillated between vicarious enjoyment of the plot, suspension of belief that so much drama could be contained within one family, and admiration of Anshaw’s craftsmanship.

Lucy Chatburn


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