“The Bible says that in the beginning was the void, and it hasn’t escaped me how fast the Lord moved to take care of His own particular vacuum—dividing day from night, spitting out vast oceans, carving out competing continents that would one day have the power to blow each other up. What an inspired series of creations to keep the devil of boredom at bay. No wonder God kept seeing that it was good.”
So begins the story of Fleur Robins.
Fleur Robins is called creepy child, poor child, little monster, odd duck, space cadet and assorted other synonyms for “weird” by almost everyone who notices her existence and tries to figure out whether she is gifted, autistic, simply hopeless or hopelessly simple. Fleur’s imagination contains many worlds because—as she explains life as the fifteen-year-old narrator of The History of My Body—positioning her body and mind “just this side of the lurking pit of nothingness” requires constant vigilance and ingenuity.
Whenever the void looms too large for her to handle, Fleur flaps her arms, bangs her head, pinches herself, emits strange noises and makes oddly literal pronouncements that simultaneously appear to miss the point and contain cosmic truths. No school will take her. An alcoholic mother loves her, but spends her days drunk or asleep. A mean-spirited father dislikes her, but fills his days with a pro-life crusade while filling an entire nursery wing of the family’s large house with children rescued from the “devil abortionists.” An odd-duck household/nursery staff cares for her, but is too busy to overtly save her from the void.
Fleur is her own teacher. She makes lists, keeps diaries, consults the dictionary frequently, and assembles the often-confusing puzzle pieces of information from others to make sense of the external world. She listens to the voices of her heart and her infinite imagination to define her internal world and to explore far-flung probabilities beyond the ken of “normal people.”
When she’s told that a woman who walks down the street every day in a bathrobe has lost her mind, Fleur falls into a figurative pit considering the ramifications:
“What kind of God would let people lose their minds? And was there some kind of cosmic Lost and Found where He kept them? I tell you, it gave me a serious case of the heebie-jeebs, thinking of God feeling so empty and alone that He needed to steal people’s minds to stuff into His own unfillably huge one.”
In her wise, superbly crafted debut novel, author Sharon Heath connects a series of highly improbable events into a tightly knit story about a self-taught young girl who believes her coming of age is a wonderful example of the butterfly effect: or, as Fleur came to understand nonlinear systems, a personal development with a sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Potential events spin off in all directions when Fleur finds a dying baby bird in the garden; while those that ultimately manifest as her body’s history could never have been predicted, they represent a meaningful synchronicity if not harmony.
Fleur’s phases of growth (incarnations, to her way of thinking) unfold as a metamorphosis out of the chaos of her childhood. Her progress isn’t ugly duckling to swan. It’s more like a butterfly transitioning from egg to larva to pupa to adult, or like the unfolding of the beloved David Austen roses she tended on the grounds of the childhood home of her first incarnation.
In The History of My Body, Sharon Heath masterfully combines darkness and light, tragedy and comedy, and the sublime and the ridiculous into a dazzling and beautifully ironic dance of opposites that create an unusual and endearing protagonist with an unforgettable tale to tell.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the recent contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.”