I have a thing about flashbacks. Actually, I have a thing about not liking them. Usually. In most cases. I blogged a bit here about making sure they have a function, that they aren’t simply a fallback safety-net when we can’t figure out a better way to weave stuff in. As a reader, though, I don’t typically like being pulled that far out of the story to get background details, whether they’re in a flashback or an info dump.
Except, apparently, when Jacqueline Davies does it.
This is going to be an impossible review to write without at least one spoiler, but I’ll do my best not to give away anything you wouldn’t realize in the first few chapters. And I won’t tell you how anything turns out. Promise
When the story starts, Essie is knee-deep in her daily routine of turning out enough work in her job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (Yes, that Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but Lost is anything but yet another story about the fire.) She has to train a new girl who acts as though she’s never touched a sewing machine before, all while getting enough of her own sewing done that she isn’t fired. And then she has to avoid her best friend who wants to walk home together, so she can spend the evening shopping for silk for her little sister’s new hat.
Except…and here’s the SPOILER. Essie’s little sister, Zelda, is dead.
Essie is in major denial. She moves forward during the day as though everything is fine at home, as though it’s her friend Freyda who’s talking crazy, every time she tries to talk to Essie about Zelda. In the evenings, she shops for the silk for hours, coming home after Zelda “is” already asleep and leaving in the mornings before she can find Zelda, who “is” in the middle of her favorite hiding game. Davies writes these moments beautifully and subtly, letting the reader grasp in their own time (and, yes, much more slowly than I’ve let you) what’s going on. Which makes it hurt all the more.
Maybe Davies could have written the book without the flashbacks. Maybe she could have woven in Essie & Zelda’s past in bits and pieces mixed into in-the-moment scenes. Maybe she could have built the tension across the book to the crisis and kept us with her the whole time. She’s a fantastic writer, so those maybes are actually, I’d say, probablys.
But…the flashbacks add things that even Davies would have been hard put to manage without them. We get to know Zelda. Oh, how we get to know Zelda. The child jumps off the page at us as immediately and energetically as she jumps around the family’s tenement apartment. She is a wonder, a ball of fire whom Essie adores so much that we think Mama may actually be right when she accuses Essie of spoiling her too much. She is bright and beautiful, she can sing and dance, she charms everyone who meets her, except perhaps the mothers whose children Zelda tends to roll over like a tiny steamroller. And Essie loves her. Essie loves her more than anything, which we also get to see–with crystal clarity. The flashbacks let us see the depth of Essie’s denial and worry, really worry, about if she’s going to come out of that denial and what will happen if she does.
The flashbacks give a reason, a substantial, specific reason–for why Essie lets go of her old friendship with Freyda (or tries to) and why she needs to build her new friendship with Harriet, the new girl that first day at the factory. Freyda knows about Zelda; Harriet does not. Harriet becomes the only person to whom Essie can speak of Zelda in the present tense; Harriet’s apartment is the only place Essie can relax into the belief that her sister is still with her. Again, I am blown away by the way Davies manages the dialogue between Essie & Harriet when they’re talking about Zelda. Amazing. Yes, Essie’s friendship with Harriet is more than a crutch, much more, but the roots of their relationship are firmly grounded in Essie’s need. Which, again, we wouldn’t understand nearly as well without the flashbacks.
There is so much more to this story than I have touched on. The grimness of work in the factories–of which the Triangle is only the most famous. The risks for children every day–especially for those growing up poor in the tenements. The layers and layers of different kinds of love, different ways of showing that love, and the cruelty and pain tangled between those who withhold it and those who wish for it. Yes, the famous fire is here, but I love that Davies makes sure to use the event as a single, if devastating, plot point, not as the emotional crux of the story.
Because, for me at least, that emotional crux is Essie and Zelda, their dynamic, their love. And I truly believe that, without the flashbacks, that crux would have had much, much, less power.