Aimee Bender’s delicately surreal first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own – which follows her quirky 1998 short-story debut, ”The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” – focuses on Mona Gray, a 21 year old numbers-obsessed second-grade math teacher who quits things she loves (piano, track, egg salad) and eats soap to quell sexual urges. It’s a bizarrely funny portrayal of compulsion that becomes a parable of the crippling effects of denial.
Mona’s father has spent the last 10 years withering away from an unmentionable illness, but she only begins to confront the buried family trauma when a grief-stricken student grapples with her mother’s terminal cancer. Set in an unnamed small town dominated by a huge blue-glass medical center and inhabited by characters identified mainly by their relationships to illness, physical wounds, or death, the book reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale overlaid with the futuristic alienation of Phillip K. Dick. Thanks to Bender’s skillful, elliptical prose, this initially disconnected tale reveals itself, sign by frighteningly familiar sign.