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Carolyn See reviews ‘The Talk-Funny Girl,’ by Roland Merullo

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THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL

By Roland Merullo

Crown. 304 pp. $23

“I am a grown woman now,” narrator Marjorie Richards tells us, “married and raising children, and happy enough most of the time. Underneath that happiness, though, showing its face every now and again, is a part of me still connected to a time when I was a girl living with her parents in the New Hampshire hills. That girl was not treated well.”

So begins Roland Merullo’s new novel, “The Talk-Funny Girl,” and you think you’re entering a more or less conventional story of an unhappy childhood, eventually overcome by a plucky kid who has lived to tell a tale of adversity defeated. But that’s not what you get.

“The Talk-Funny Girl” opens with a glum picture of a desperately poor rural New England family. Poverty has so brutalized the family that the ordinary laws and rules governing humanity have eroded, turning systems of behavior upside down. The result is a man-made hell on Earth.

Seventeen-year-old Marjorie is the only child of murderous parents who live off their daughter’s earnings and beat her silly for any kind of conduct — good or bad. They do all this in the name of God, whom they worship in a little church where children are routinely inflicted with hideous torments, such as immersion in freezing water, for their real or imaginary sins. The congregation is bound together in an unspoken understanding that not only do the members get to torture their children, they’re encouraged to twist their evil conduct into righteousness. Several girls have gone missing and haven’t been seen again.

As the title suggests, Marjorie “talks funny,” as does her father and his ancestors. “We talk like the same for everybody,” she says in defense, but she knows that isn’t true. Her family members have withdrawn from civilization so thoroughly and completely that language has begun to leave them. “Most high school kids would have tried to change, I know that,” she says, “would have tried desperately to fit in. But I had a lot of my father in me then, the same woundedness, the same fierce stubbornness. . . . I knew our speech was odd, obviously, but it had been natural to me for so long that, really, I preferred the sound of it to standard American English.” Marjorie and her family members are freaks, half savage, not entirely human.

Poverty has done this to them, but also extreme isolation. Even the sight of a highway spooks her father; he’s never ventured into so-called civilization and doesn’t want to. He’s like a wild animal, wary and afraid. But Marjorie, on the brink of adulthood, finds herself growing apart from her parents, feeling less and less able to believe in their values, their church. Despite her isolation, she has the sense to know that somewhere, not too far away, people are living differently.

She also has an aunt who has conspicuously chosen not to live in brutal squalor. “Whenever I saw Aunt Elaine I had another glimpse of that kind of life,” she says. “During all those years there was a way in which I believed people like that were a different species. There had been an invisible wall that stood between their lives and mine, something impossible to climb over or break through.” But when she gets a full-time job, takes a good look around and perceives people fighting their own demons, she begins to take heart.

Her first job in town is working for a decent young man, a stone cutter who nurtures an idealistic passion. He has undertaken to build a cathedral in the middle of their small town. With a lot of hard work, Marjorie turns into a respectable stone mason, but mostly she discovers an unexpected world of beauty. It goes without saying that her parents aren’t going to let her out of their grasp so easily. They need someone to torture and mistreat.

But this isn’t just another story about an unfortunate girl escaping terrible circumstances or a gothic mystery about missing children, and it’s even better than I can make it sound. Set as it is in New England, it looks at the American connection between devout religion and veiled murderousness — the same deadly combination that once tore through Salem. Where does that impulse come from, and how does it inform our current lives? That’s what Roland Merullo wants us to consider.

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