“My mother was on her way over the day I hung myself.”
With this startling, mysterious line, author Melia McClure begins The Delphi Room, a fascinating and engrossing novel that is at times beautiful, heartbreaking, terrifying, and perplexing. It’s even funny. Often, it’s all of these things simultaneously.
After taking her own life, a young woman, Velvet, lands in a kind of afterlife where she’s relegated to a room full of artifacts from her childhood. The room also contains other notable items: a mirror, a writing desk, and a pad of paper. Though she tries every way she can think to escape, Velvet is trapped in the room. She’s not alone, though–before long, she discovers that the room adjacent to hers is occupied by an also-dead man named Brinkley.
Through letters passed between their spaces, along with viewed episodes from each other’s lives–seen through the mirrors in their respective rooms–Velvet and Brinkley start to become intimately acquainted. For Velvet, these pivotal life scenes revolve around her relationship with her mother, her mother’s troubled love life, and Velvet’s often volatile connection with her own friend Davie. Brinkley’s scenes mostly focus on his interactions with his mother.
These viewed life episodes make up a significant portion of the novel and are presented in screenplay format, which is an interesting and effective authorial choice for a number of reasons. It not only reflects both characters’ professed love and appreciation for cinema, but it allows us to “see” the scenes from a distant, presumably objective point of view, creating the impression that we’re seeing what actually happened rather than relying on the character’s account. It’s also significant that both Velvet’s and Brinkley’s mothers are presented as dead ringers for Hollywood golden age stars, Mae West and Rita Hayworth, respectively.
It’s not quite that simple, though. Some of Velvet’s episodes also feature a dark entity called the Shadowman, a person she’s known for most of her life. Similarly, a number of Brinkley’s clips—which we see through Velvet’s mirror—feature his own “other,” the silent film actress Clara Bow. Both the Shadowman and Clara Bow appear from time to time, advising Velvet and Brinkley during trying situations. (Now that I think about it, “advising,” while technically a suitable word, has too benign a connotation, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out what I mean. And read it you should.)
The Delphi Room, as I mentioned earlier, is engrossing, and it’s a difficult thing to quit. Not only is McClure’s prose lush, beautiful, haunting, and, as I mentioned before, often funny. She also draws us through the story by tantalizing us with questions: How did Brinkley die? Is he lying to Velvet? Is she lying to us? Who is the Shadowman? How did Velvet and Brinkley become the way they are? What’s the purpose behind them being in this mysterious place? Is there a purpose at all? Is what’s happening to them real? Does that even matter?
Not surprisingly, the tension between subjective and objective reality is a theme McClure returns to again and again throughout the novel. “It’d always irked me how doctors outright dismissed the reality of people they couldn’t see,” Velvet muses. “What a limited and selfish perspective. Not to mention condescending. Reality is by its very nature subjective, to varying degrees.”
Here’s the bottom line: When I first finished reading The Delphi Room, I couldn’t think of what I wanted to say about it. I had to take some time to formulate my thoughts and assess what I’d read. Sometimes it’s easy to review a book, to tell readers the most important aspects of the story, the major points and themes, to pass judgment on whether it “works” or not. Not to say that those kinds of books are inferior, not at all, but with this one, there are so many rich elements and such complex personal histories woven throughout, that I wanted to take care in writing about it, to make sure I did it justice. Because I believe it’s such an imaginative, daring, and important work, I felt it was especially important that I get that across.
Generally, I’m hesitant to mention the length of time it takes me to finish a book, not wanting to create the impression it’s an “easy read.” With this novel, though, it’s significant that I read it in one sitting and that I sacrificed valuable sleep time in doing so. It was well worth it.
So, read The Delphi Room. Me? I’m going to read again.