Imagine the Brothers Grimm rewritten in the chirpy, bouncy cadence — “Skip, skip, skip, up the walkway she went” — of a Little Golden Book, and you’ll have some glimmer of an idea of what makes the first novel by actress Meg Tilly so bizarre. But Singing Songs is more than just bizarre. It’s oppressively ugly.
When we first meet Anna, the narrator, she’s 4 1/2 years old and living, in a kind of stabilized chaos, with her brother, two sisters, and their divorced mother, Jean. It’s the mid-1960s, and we’re in the Pacific Northwest — although if you took away all references to a famous Beatles album and the quoted lyrics from a Simon & Garfunkel song, you might easily think it was the Black Forest during the Middle Ages.
Enter Mr. Richard Smith, itinerant housepainter and loudmouthed suitor who promptly marries Jean, then merges his own brood (two daughters and a son) with hers. To avoid social workers, bill collectors, and school authorities (truancy is a family value), “Daddy” and “Mama” keep moving their megadysfunctional Brady Bunch from one town to another. “Daddy” is a bully and a sadist who likes to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and dress up in a “pink see-through negligee.” Why on earth Anna’s mother — a Radcliffe graduate who “used to sing light opera in Boston” — would ever have gotten involved with such a lout in the first place is never addressed. You keep wondering, page after page, Who are these people?
But we haven’t a clue, and Anna doesn’t help us out. Though her vocabulary is (sometimes) far more sophisticated than her age warrants (when was the last time you heard a 4-year-old talk about “nutrients”?), she is unable to give us anything more than the physical terrors of the moment: “Daddy came roaring out of the bedroom, pulled down my pants and spank, spank, spank on my bare bottom.” Granted, a little girl can’t be expected to understand, or analyze, adult motivations, but Tilly’s narrative conceit doesn’t excuse her from finding ways to provide the reader with them.
Several years pass, but not much changes in the Smith household — except that its catalog of cruelties keeps growing. Both parents turn more unpredictable, ever more volatile, and the children, day in and day out, are whippped black and blue (or “striped, striped like a zebra,” as Anna’s sister puts it) for infractions that range from shyness and clumsiness to reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without permission. They’re banished, literally, to the doghouse, gleefully tormented (Anna’s regular chore is to clean Daddy’s false teeth), given “kissing lessons,” and, inevitably, molested and raped.
This is one of those books, finally, that you want to throw across the room in disgust — not because the subject matter is so grotesque, but because the author’s vision is so stubbornly deceitful. From teenage stepbrother to geriatric grandfather, every male is a pervert — and every grown woman is a weakling, a hysteric, or a “hoor.” While no doubt meaning to reckon with and denounce the horrors of incest and child abuse, Singing Songs does the job so ineptly, and deliriously, that it ends up reading like some unwitting, though still repulsive, new species of kiddie porn. D