A powerful tale of a troubled teen

By Sharon Ullman
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2010

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When authors have won the prestigious Poets & Writers’ California Writers Exchange prize for emerging writers, as Elaine Beale did in 2007, one anticipates that their subsequent published novel will flow with exceptional craftsmanship. Surely, “Another Life Altogether,’’ Beale’s sparkling debut, does that.

In her rich characterization of the troubled teen Jesse Bennett, caught in the misery of her disastrous, if painfully funny, dysfunctional family; stuck in the most boring town in 1970s East Yorkshire, England (with, as Jesse pointedly notes, “one of the fastest eroding coastlines in the world’’), Beale has engagingly captured that tender moment when a young would-be author discovers the power of the written word to rescue herself.

“The day after my mother was admitted to the mental hospital, I told everyone at school that she had entered a competition on the back of a Corn Flakes box and won a cruise around the world.’’

So begins Jesse’s tale and her own extended journey. To persuade her classmates of this fanciful lie, she writes elaborate letters to herself supposedly from her traveling mother and reads them aloud to everyone. Of course, she is ultimately discovered and humiliated, but with this episode, the novel sets its own course. Writing produces a healing salve, and Jesse repeatedly returns to the page to escape her fate - both that forced on her from without and the one she makes for herself.

The crazy-parent genre of novel and memoir has filled the shelves in recent years. What sets Beale’s novel apart, however, is its careful depiction of the ordinary life with a seriously disturbed family member. If memoirs like “Running With Scissors’’ or “The Glass Castle’’ entertain through their outrageous events, many hilarious in their retelling (if not in living through them), Beale’s fiction, in turn, focuses on the mundane lunacy that fills Jesse’s daily world after her mother’s release from the hospital.

Her mother’s manic decorating projects start and are left hanging when weeks pass and she cannot get out of bed. It is Jesse who has to figure out what they’ll eat, when to appease her mother’s despair with beloved “Mr. Kipling’s’’ cream cakes, and how to mediate her father’s benign neglect as he escapes into his nightly rants against the British crown. Equally witty, Beale tempers the laughter with a constant balancing act that reveals precisely how trapped Jesse is by the fractured world engulfing her.

The novel plays out two major stories - Jesse’s family collapse and her own coming to terms with her sexuality. Horrified by both her attraction to an older girl and her private admiration for an openly gay classmate tormented by their peers, Jesse tries desperately to find her footing. Beale does a wonderful job describing all of her characters with richness and economy, but as she moves Jesse through this agonizing transformation, Beale is particularly powerful.

Jesse pours out her heart into letters she never sends to the girl she secretly desires, and the fate of those letters propels the book to its climax. Yet Beale is clearly after bigger game than a simple coming-of-age story, and the return of Jesse’s epistolary skills is no narrative coincidence. As a result, the book’s conclusion, like Jesse’s story overall, is both surprising and moving.

In her debut novel, Beale has revealed a mature talent with a sharp eye for both the intricacies of the surface detail and the complexities of the inner life. In “Another Life Altogether,’’ Beale reminds us that writing, always potentially dangerous, also confers grace, and that with the power of the word, we all have the potential to become the heroines of our own lives.

Sharon Ullman is a professor of history at Bryn Mawr College and author of “Sex Seen: The Emergence of Modern Sexuality In America.’’

By Elaine Beale
Spiegel & Grau, 416 pp., $26