Like Ella, Say Say Say asks difficult questions, of society and of the self. There are no easy answers, but in the novel’s quietly radical choice of subject matter and its open-eyed, open-hearted curiosity, it illuminates both the intimate dramas usually hidden behind closed doors and the shifting mysteries of personality and relationship.
Savage, who has worked as a carer, knows the world of which she speaks.
However, her novel is overwritten, despite containing almost no plot and even less dialogue. Instead, she tells us a lot about how Ella feels, but without ever giving her a persuasive inner life.
Savage strains to explore what it means to be kind, an admirable gesture in a novel — but the whole thing feels effortful, dutiful and, I’m afraid, dull.
Since not a great deal happens in Say Say Say, the narrator has ample space to explore her thoughts and to experiment with turning them into words. The novel’s great achievement in this process is its honesty. Before becoming a writer, Savage worked for nearly a decade as a carer, so her portrayal of the role feels valuable and real; and despite the obviously autobiographical basis for her fiction, Savage never sanitises Ella’s thinking.
It is this simple sincerity, the unfussy kindness, that places Savage firmly in Burgess’s A-list. The absence of a strong style will not appeal to everyone, but it fits the sobering subject and gives Ella’s story weight. In that sense Say Say Say is the antidote to the arch and ironic in literature, to books that hide their emotion behind seven layers of cynicism. (If you hated Ottessa Moshfegh’s ultra-cool My Year of Rest and Relaxation, try this.) It is not escapism — the place it takes us to is our own collective future — but its humane journey into other lives provides a consolation of its own.