Review: Norma by Sarah Mintz

NORMA by Sarah Mintz
Invisible Publishing (2024)

This is truly an inventive and thoughtful book. It's a slim volume that packs a big punch, and I'm pleased to have had the opportunity review it. 

This article was originally published in The British Columbia Review (thebcreview.ca) on February 7, 2024. 

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“It’s a terrible freedom to linger unaccounted for.” —NORMA

Norma Nimmo is not okay. She’s become untethered from everything that’s kept her grounded for years: she’s retired from her job, her family members have passed away, and now her husband Hank has died and left her an empty house and a gaping existential hole in her life.

Reading Victoria resident Sarah Mintz’s debut novel NORMA is an invitation to spend some time inside this titular character’s head. It’s a wild and bewildering place to be even as it offers up the possibility of a new beginning.

“The older I get, the dirtier I feel. I’m sixty-seven. I have short grey hair. My body is a murky site of mutant growth.” So declares Norma in the book’s opening sentences. She throws down the gauntlet and dares the reader to stick with her and explore the un-pretty world of loss, grief, and aging. “Listen, I know I’m ridiculous. But, you know, rats, cats, fucking dogs, they just run around until their bodies are spent. Birds fly, then fall into the ocean. So what’s the use in feeling turned out by youth and betrayed by middle age?”

Alone in her house with no one to care for and no one who cares for her, the only connection Norma has is to the voices from the digital files that she has begun transcribing for meagre pay. At first, it’s something to do: transcribing different soap opera episodes draws her into the fantastic and melodramatic plot lines. She starts to haunt the soaps’ fan sites; the characters strut though her imagination. But she transcribes snippets from all sorts of files, and when a police transcript appears to be about a girl she thinks she knows from her local grocery store, the digital becomes real, and becomes Norma’s obsession.

Plus, the ghost of her husband Hank haunts her:

“Pick something, Norma. Stick to something.”
“I stuck to you.”
Hank’s eyes roll backwards.

So Norma picks: she’ll stick to the vulnerable, abused grocery store girl named Marigold that the digital file in her ear has revealed to her. She stalks the transcription files for more and more clues. To her credit, Norma knows she’s grasping to find purchase in her untethered days:

–though what do I want with her? That’s not the point. The point is the focus, the knowing, the uncovering, and it isn’t even conscious, not really; well, it is, but it isn’t anything I can control. It lingers. This feels like the thing I’m supposed to do, like the only thing I’m supposed to do, the only thing I get anything from now.
Author Sarah Mintz
What this fixation on Marigold and her family reveals, however, is not only the desperation for a touchstone in this sea of isolation, but also the dark depths of her evolving grief. Norma oriented herself by the compass of her husband Hank, mother-in-law Penny, and sister-in-law Margery; but each has died, and her own family members passed on years ago. Each star winked out, and now she is alone. She didn’t seem to grieve Hank much at first, instead relishing her freedom from the cold relationship they shared. If anything, he was a bothersome presence to Norma.

But loneliness has a way of intruding into Norma’s thoughts, making her question her own self-worth, noticing her own ageing body and irrelevance:

An aimless fool remains. Free and unfettered. Free and formless. Walking around chilled from a life that should bring me joy, walking around wrinkled and greasy from ironing nothing and cleaning no one.

Very gradually, Norma begins to access the depth of her loss, grieving a husband she didn’t know she needed so much.

In this slim volume, Mintz (Handwringers) showcases an astounding capacity to use her prose as both straightforward narrative and wild experiment.

There is no steady ground here for the reader; one always feels a bit dizzied by the abrupt changes in tone and even in coherence. Sometimes the words are profound and poetic, prompting a slow reading in order to savour the sentences—some of which beg to be lingered over or even read aloud.

As Norma’s pursuit of Marigold continues she starts to become more self-aware; and Mintz writes these painful and beautiful words:

Why can’t I get used to my own kind of tragedy?… trying to find my own sort of grief as interesting as somebody else’s. Is it grief though? It seems to become grief as time goes on. It intensifies or warps, and I sometimes know it’s just glass beneath me–not like a stand-in for something but a crunching kind of constant shattering, and if I close my eyes and shake my head, it isn’t there, but I know what happens if I open my eyes–a deafening blinding breaking apart that sinks me and I feel everything unlike anything I know–hell.

In other passages, sentences slip into a bewildering mass of jumbled thoughts, and Mintz’s choice of words and structure approaches incoherence. We’re lost in the prose and lost in Norma’s confusion.

Reading these sections takes patience and may not appeal to all readers, but after adjusting to the rhythm of the prose, we can come to appreciate these narrative dips into the jumble; the experience of reading mirrored Norma’s thought process, and her disorientation in the new landscape of her life:

…moments come and go, inexplicable things are said and done and consequences are endured and built upon; new things are introduced, unassimilated bugs branch out, live the defect, are unable to hole all the new consequences together and generate anything like integrity, while the inhabitants struggle to understand anything like the whole of it…

Mintz adds interest by scattering the snippets and blips from the digital audio files throughout, so the reader can follow the disconnected smatterings of soap operas along with Norma. She’s inundated with banal and increasingly absurd internet surveys and polls. We read the transcripts of Marigold’s abuse at the hands of the perpetrator and become active participants in the unfolding drama of it all.

It’s abhorrently real and sordid entertainment all at once, an aural tragedy in the making that Norma finds herself increasingly hooked on.

The story starts to come full circle when the digital merges with reality at the supermarket and finally–inevitably–at the police station, where Norma stands accused of stalking. It does so in a most subtle and beautiful way, and one that feels wonderfully unpredictable. When Norma feels a single spark of true connection it’s cause to cheer:

The sky twinkles in pink, and I think about how nice it is, how much I like it, how there aren’t words that make liking it useful and there isn’t anything to do with how much I want something from this feeling of liking and loving and wanting. My heart is pressing up against it, the slinky pink sky, and hurting, just holding itself in place with the bones in my chest, aching to get out.

Will Norma be okay? Will any of us, when we lose the people and things that tie us to a sense of ourselves; as we age and lose the familiar sense of our bodies; and as we find ourselves lost in a disconnected, digital age? The beauty of this book is how Mintz shows us the uncertain, ugly, and undesirable bits of a woman in crisis, and then brings us close to her with a sense of communal, relatable humanity. For those who are interested in reading a short, experimental novel that explores the stuff of life that connects us to others, NORMA will not disappoint.

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