Jane’s Pick: Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
First published in 1982, Mrs. Caliban has been republished this year. Even though it is a reissue – it feels very relevant today.
How to describe this small gem of a book? A surreal Mrs. Dalloway? Shakespeare’s Tempest turned on its head? A satire of a modern romance novel? Not sure there is a precise, easy description, but that is what makes it a great read.
At only 111 pages long it is a quick read. The basic plot is a love story between a housewife and a 6’7 tall, humanoid frog called Larry. Beyond that simple premise is a world of satire, social commentary and suspenseful twists and turns. Like Shakespeare’s Caliban, Larry is a complex monster – who is at once sympathetic and yet, still monstrous. Dorothy, the lead female character, is obviously unreliable as to her point of view and yet she strikes such a familiar cord that she is totally relatable, oh, and also quite possibly monstrous herself (although that is really left up to the reader to decide).
As the book opens, I knew I was being pulled down the rabbit hole of Dorothy’s escape into a fantasy world, but it becomes so realistic – that I suspended disbelief and really felt for the characters. Dorothy is so sad and lonely and yet, optimistic that I willingly followed. It is only at the end, that I went “wait, WHAT?” There is so much complexity that unfolds from Ingalls rather simple prose; layers of narrative contained between the sentences written on the page. The social commentary is powerful – on loneliness; on human nature; on the meaning of love and grief; on what lies beneath the surface in all of us. I don’t want to say too much about the book because I don’t want to give too much away. But, I highly recommend reading it and finding out for yourself.
Since finishing the book, I have been haunted by it. I can’t stop thinking about it – rereading it for more and more meaning, subtext and literary references. Read it twice because it becomes a totally different story.