One of the many beauties of The Everrumble is its overt independence from sequence, without confusion. I don’t recall previously reading a novel in which events hop around the calendar so willy nilly. Yet, in retrospect it is obvious the subtext of Michelle Elvy’s short novel (132 pages) has its own linear integrity corresponding neatly with the awakening curiosity for an idea so unusual and subtly crafted there are moments one must remind oneself to breathe.
Everrumble’ s ingeniously compressed story spans all 105 years of Marjorie Hanna’s life—from her very first gasp to her final, silent thought. The name “Marjorie Hanna” has now appeared twice as many times in this review as it does in the novel. I include it here only to give to Zettie a conventional perspective, however fleeting, as she may well be the oddest human being ever portrayed in literary fiction.
The name “Zettie” comes about on Marjorie’s second birthday. Her Aunt Zettie has given her a blanket. During the birthday festivities Marjorie’s five-year-old brother Brent “pointed back and forth between Auntie and his sister and said, Big Zettie, Little Zettie. Little Zettie wore the blanket on her head all day and the name stuck.” Five years later, on her seventh birthday, she makes two decisions: to talk no more, for any reason, and to stay under the blanket, where she spends the rest of the year.
She spends the rest of her life living richly and wondering at the special gift she’d accepted at birth. On her last day, ninety-eight years after she stopped talking in order to listen to the sounds no one else could hear, understanding comes to her. “The moment of clarity comes in the morning, and it is later in the day, just before the rapid darkening that is the tropical night, that she will die.
“It’s not so much a vision as a full-on worldly orchestral movement. Overtones and undercurrents. Chantings and crashings. Rowdy and dreadful but also melodious and beautiful. It happens in a flash, yes, but its layers are as deep as oceans, as wide as the space between stars...”
Her special gift arrives at the moment of her birth. A screaming no other person in the world hears. It drifts in through the open hospital window and vibrates her timpanic membrane. Of course the newborn has no way of identifying this sound, because “how can you identify anything over the suckingslurpingslipping surroundsound of your own birth?”
Soon other sounds reach her. A bee buzzing across town in a garden, a toad croaking in a pond miles away, someone coughing on the other side of the world. At age five she senses these sounds seek her out, and she does her best to listen. But there’s something else besides the random buzzes and voices that reach her ears. It’s a low rumble. “It bores gently into her ear and winds down the canal, vibrating through her whole body, her throat, her chest, her tummy. It moves out to the tips of her limbs, to the very ends of her long brown hair. Once she hears it she can’t un-hear it.
“The rumble is here to stay.”
We peek in on Zettie at different stages of her life. By age twelve she’s learned to narrow her focus on the origin of individual sounds. Hearing a mosquito flying through a broken screen three streets away, she counts the wingbeat: 111 times per second.
At fifteen, her uncle forces himself on her. She knew he trusted she wouldn’t talk. Her silence follows him. To his job, to his weekly poker game, and when he dies three years later she hurls her silence at him “one last time, screaming down his ear.”
Once she stops talking, the absence of verbal distractions heightens Zettie’s other senses, especially her ability to concentrate. Words fascinate her. She reads widely, goes to college, studies languages, graduates with high honors. She still doesn’t speak the languages, but she understands them, and makes a career of translating new editions of literature. She travels widely, living here and there, never staying more than a few years in any one place. She marries and has two daughters. She and her husband eventually go their separate ways. She raises their daughters alone. but maintains “a loving distance relationship” with their father.
In a journal she notes the only time she wanted to speak aloud was to read to children. This was before her daughters were born, and we do not know if in fact she read to them when they were small. Presumably not, because surely that would be a highlight in her story, and we are not privileged to know. I do know Zettie, though, feel I’ve known her all her life. And I feel she knew me, as well. She knew us all, one way or another. At the very end we learn what she concludes of the everrumble: “The heartbeat of every living creature.” So loud it hurts her ears. “They’ll soon start bleeding. And why not? Her form will turn to liquid, then dust. Blood is just blood. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.
“Her skin is dancing. Telling the story of the world.”
Michelle Elvy is an editor and widely published writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The Everrumble is her first novel. She lives in New Zealand, and is an avid sailor.
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