PURE by Jo Perry - a review
'Caught in a pincer movement between the sudden death of Evelyn (her favourite aunt) and the Corona virus, Ascher Lieb finds herself unexpectedly locked down in her aunt's retirement community with only Evelyn's grief-stricken dog Freddie for company.
As the world tumbles down into a pandemic shaped rabbit-hole Ascher is wracked with guilt that her aunt was buried without the Jewish burial rights of purification.
In order to atone for this dereliction of familial duty, Ascher - in her own words 'a profane, unobservant, atheist Jew, frequent liar and grieving loser' -volunteers to become the newest member of Valley Haverim Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish burial society on-call twenty-four-seven during lockdown and performing Mitzvot at no cost to the bereaved.
What follows is a journey through the insanity of lockdown in Los Angeles as Ascher attempts to bring peace to a troubled soul, and perhaps in the end redemption for herself.'
'It happened during my third corpse. The old, olive-skinned female under a wet sheet had already been cleaned. The Betadine-stains had been rubbed off her discoloured skin with rubbing alcohol and the bandages, toe rag and the hospital I.D. bracelet had been cut away. Soon we would slide freshly scrubbed boards beneath her body to raise it off the metal surface.'
Ascher's aunt - Ascher being the central character and narrator of this novel - has just passed. And Ascher finds herself in her aunt's apartment at the Sunny Morning Elder Care Living Centre. Covid has hit, and Sunny Morning Elder Care Living is no longer quite so sunny as it once was. There are rules and restrictions and lockdowns and interminable wellness checks. This is now Ascher's home, and Ascher hates it.
Just as Ascher is trapped in her apartment, she is also trapped in guilt, anger, resentment and loss - unable to process the loss of her aunt, unable to comprehend the very nature of death. But Ascher is a fighter. She fights. She fights against it all. Anything to avoid the feeling of it.
Each day is torturous. Second follows second, minute follows minute, hour follows hour - and the days ooze by. Ascher is doing the best she can to get through each day, hating herself and the world in the process. And then the spirit of an elderly woman appears who it seems met an untimely end at the hands of person, or persons, unknown. And suddenly Ascher has a purpose. A real purpose. A chance for redemption.
So that's the story.
But I want to talk about is the writing.
Written in the first person from the perspective of Ascher, we follow Ascher's every thought, every decision, every struggle with her new reality. The pace of the novel is brilliantly oppressive - so much so that it doesn't take long for the reader to feel Ascher's anger at the stifling routine at Sunny Morning Elder Care Living and the sheer helplessness of her existence. Part of how Perry achieves this effect is the incredible level of detail of Ascher's thoughts and everything she observes.
As Ascher is trapped in so many ways - in what she thinks, in what she sees, in where she can and cannot go, in time itself - so the reader is trapped inside the head of Ascher.
Here's a little example:
I wake up hungover from a murky Valium not-dream. Freddie is snoring and curled against me on the bed. Did I put him here? I can't remember. What I do remember is the glowing blob and leaving my aunt's lamp on when I went to bed.
Will he snap at me if I move? I'm afraid to find out. I look at my cell phone. 6.24 A.M.
I have a half hour before the wellness check that will be early because of the nosy nurse from last night.
I scan the ceiling. My aunt is absent.
So what was the blob? A shadow-trick, a waking dream? A hallucination?
Did Freddie really see it too, or did he hear something - probably the nurse in the hall?
What's worse? That it was there, or wasn't?
Another thing to add regarding the structure of the novel. The chapters in the novel are very small. The above extract is a whole chapter. The fragmentary nature of the chapters serve to produce a repetitive relentlessness to the reading experience - as soon as one chapter begins, moments later it's finished and another one arrives. Over and over and over again. This technique beautifully replicates the relentless repetitiveness of what it is to be Ascher.
There is no escape. On and on and on it goes.
This novel speaks of guilt and self-loathing, of the impotence and the anger of grief, of a life in search of purpose. It is a novel that is both stark and beautiful.
But, mostly, it is a novel about human being battling with the mysteries of what it is to be human.
A true reading experience.
Pure is published by Fahrenheit Press, and is available in hardback, paperback and downloadable versions here: https://fahrenheit-press.myshopify.com/products/pure-jo-perry?_pos=2&_sid=c90d6d5a9&_ss=r&variant=40189290250413