The Second Elizabeth
by Karen Lillis
Six Gallery Press | February 2009
Repetition is the driving force that makes us first bob our heads to the beat of a good hip-hop song and later know all of the words to the chorus after it has been played on the radio, sometimes ad nauseum. The Second Elizabeth, a novel by Karen Lillis, uses repeated words and phrases in a manner that has a similar effect of a good song. The flow of language that repeats drives the reader to continue reading. In a comparable way that a radio dial stays on the station with the catchiest song, the reader of this novel continues to read the words as the story overlaps with itself.
This successful technique not only pushes the novel forward, but also gives it its unique style. The only places when the repetition takes away from the novel is when the phrase repeated has immense power, and once duplicated, this power is lost. The best example of this is when the narrator speaks of how her father “wore the same boots to mend a war” (53) as she wears. The strength of the word “mend” in this instance strikes a chord with the reader, however when the word is repeated later in the chapter, it loses its potency. Instances like these, however, are few and far between. Lillis has a poetic control of her language that rarely slips. Her characters seem to be able to whisper colors, feel words and hear fragrances of flowers.
Evident in the title, The Second Elizabeth concentrates on the origin and significance of names, a theme. Names of characters, place names, nicknames, surnames, etc. all have significance in the belly of this book. While some readers may grow weary at first of these explorations into nomenclature, the depth in which Lillis explores each word is both succinct and profound enough that her points do not stray towards purposelessness: each word’s extracted meaning adds to the story. The plot is told in something close to free and direct discourse. The first person narrator is clearly in control of the story and its plot, however her meandering thoughts and digressions mean as much to the structure of the novel as the instances where we see her in present action. The novel uses this present action combined with memories and diversions to build its foundation.
The narrator’s interactions with others do most to strengthen the emotional core of the book. Consequently, the novel is about how people (and even places) draw upon each other in both significant, and sometimes seemingly trivial ways, to survive from one day to the next. This novel is a novel of simplicity as well as survival, and the often untouched upon intimacy of these two concepts. Lillis weaves the story of a familiar yet specific woman searching for herself in name, place and mind. With The Second Elizabeth, the coming-of-age novel grows up, and this time, you can dance to it.