cover image Last Things

Last Things

Jenny Offill. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-374-18405-6

With an ornithologist mother who speaks five languages (including Pig Latin), who was also possibly a CIA spy, a cryptozoologist or just your average maniacal collector of eccentric facts, young Grace Davitt's coming-of-age story is a bizarre kind of linguistic ontological experiment. Her father is ""Mr. Science,"" obsessed with physical data and categorical details to the point of abstraction. Grace's world is one that readers are unlikely ever to have encountered before; riding the line between whimsical and sinister, she is a unique protagonist. Oddly passive in the way that children considered unconventionally brilliant are sometimes deemed by observers, Grace takes control of her destiny, in the wake of her mother's unexplained disappearance, by reinventing language and metaphorizing her life. She continues with the rich and wacky legacy her mother has left her: home schooling; a ""secret language"" named Annic in which the alphabet's first 13 letters mirror the second 13, and the ""cosmic calendar"" in which one billion years of real time can be condensed into 24 days. Nothing in this narrative is standard fare: a bizarre mother-daughter road trip, a boy-genius babysitter, the Loch Ness monster and a recurrent theme of psychological anthropomorphism are among the plot elements. In spite of Grace's sometimes unlovable behavior, she is an engaging character. When she bullies a blind girl, Offil's point is clear; Grace's esoteric knowledge and novel socialization inform but cannot finally change the fact that she is a young girl on shaky ground. On the cusp of a definitively weird adolescence, she's brimming with the implosive, even brutal, energy of that impending transformation. Offill's debut is a rare feat of remarkable constraint and nearly miraculous construction of a most unique family. (Apr.)