To read “Elsey Come Home,” the new novel from Susan Conley, is to come into contact with any search for self that any individual might ever have experienced. The novel is an intimate declaration of independence. It’s a story told many times over, true, but Conley tells it with such understanding and compassion that readers will be hard-pressed not to finish the slender volume in one sitting.
Elsey is an American painter evaluating her years also being a wife and mother in Beijing. Things weren’t going all that well. “About a year ago,” Elsey begins, “my husband handed me a brochure for a retreat in a nearby mountain village. … The brochure was more like a handmade pamphlet — four pieces of white computer paper folded in the middle and stapled three times along the crease.”
That retreat is advertised as a week of yoga, including a “day of silence,” all of which will enable participants to “reinvent themselves.” Elsey’s Danish husband, Lukas, thinks it will be a good “vacation” for her.
From what does Elsey need a vacation? Probably from her nagging self-awareness. Probably from her two small daughters, her stressful marriage, her burgeoning success as a painter and her attachment to alcohol.
So off Elsey goes, to that retreat populated by the requisite assortment of eccentric characters. This time there are “ten foreigners and two nationals”: acquaintances and strangers, true “seekers” and desperate dabblers. All this could have been just another affected burlesque, but, luckily, it is not.
What makes it especially winning is the focus the novel takes on Elsey. Watching her deal with the newness — the strangeness — of learning to stand on her own is the book’s strength.
Just how does she deal with “downward-facing dog” and the ever-present threat of “Talking Circle” and that looming day of silence? Two ways, really: Like all confused human beings, Elsey sometimes avoids her feelings and sometimes wrestles with her terrors — always fighting the troubling suspicion that she isn’t really making much progress.
But she is. She learns those to avoid and those to embrace. Her friend Tasmin, for example, just might not be as selfless as Elsey thinks. And there is Mei, a highly regarded national painter whose relationship with her own husband echoes the instability Elsey perceives in her own marriage. Elsey and Mei will become both teacher and student to each other.
During her retreat, Elsey has time to meditate on a great many things: her relationships with her aging mother and her fundamentalist sister, Ginny; her former lover Tommy Miller (now a Dublin neurosurgeon); her unsettling thyroid surgery; her drinking; her therapist (the person she refers to as “the man I pay to ask me questions in Beijing”).
Most movingly of all, there is both the memory of the heartbreaking childhood death of her younger sister Margaret and the present guilt Elsey now has trying to balance her profession with motherhood: “It had begun to seem luxurious — hours alone painting, and this was my downfall, when I made it something that created a debt against my girls.”
While it is very much about finding place, “Elsey Come Home” is also very much about taking leave. Elsey has been living in a restrictive country, even as she has been living in a restrictive marriage, even as motherhood has restricted her professional life. But the satisfaction Susan Conley affords us is not in watching Elsey rebel. It is in watching her take leave of what she has learned she no longer needs and return to what she has learned to be of value.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.