Janes turned me on to a particular strain of literary fiction of which Ottessa Moshfegh would be considered the standard-bearer: fiction about antiheroines who, rather than rebelling against social norms in a proto-feminist way (as in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies or even Gone Girl), are simply petty and vain and shallow, while also being darkly hilarious. Elisa Victoria’s novel oldladyvoice answers the question you never thought to ask: “What if Ottessa Moshfegh wrote a book about a nine-year-old?”
Answer: it would be amazing.
The heroine and narrator, Marina, is a sardonic nine-year-old girl whose main hobby, other than checking out her own junk in the mirror and playing sex games with her friends, is sleeping on the couch in front of the TV with her grandma. She has a mom, but her mom is mysteriously sick, and Marina describes her as “just another scared little girl caught up in one hell of a mess.” Marina’s like that—sharply observant, funny, and terribly attuned to the absurd predicament of being a child even though you understand so much more than people think you do. (Her sense of humor and the ridiculous things she says make her the rare child protagonist who is precocious without being deeply annoying.)
Equating Victoria to Moshfegh is an oversimplification, of course; the book is set in Spain, for one thing (translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle), not in the privileged-white-American milieu that birthed Moshfegh or Melissa Broder. And Marina, by virtue of being nine, has license to be petty and shallow in a way that adult characters don’t. She’s fearlessly approaching the process of growing up, but as a reader, you are afraid for her, this sensitive, funny, incredibly weird little girl who’s terribly curious about sex and doesn’t seem to have anyone looking out for her. She’s a very young girl loose in a world where boys are already keen on taking advantage of her, the adults who are supposed to be responsible for her can’t quite get it together, and the approach of the twenty-first century (it’s set in the nineties) provides the vague sense of a coming apocalypse, too. Her pettiness and shallowness are age-appropriate reactions.
These circumstances are so saliently dangerous to everyone but Marina that in fact, the book was almost too much for me to read as the mother of a young daughter (I do NOT remember my friends and I ever talking or thinking or knowing about sex in this way at nine years old!). But I had to power through my horror for the sheer pleasure of reading Marina’s keenly intelligent, daringly hilarious and extraordinarily observant oldladyvoice.