A few years ago, I read Jan Waldo’s ‘Old Buildings Of North Texas’. I was attracted by the cover and the title which together, to my English eyes, promised something exotic and quirky. Which it was, but not in the comfortable see-the-sadness-that-underpins-this-eccentricity way that something English and quirky might have been.
This was a book about addiction where the addict is not on a Twelve Step path to redemption. She’s seeking to recover, not redeem her life. As she put it ‘“I’m working to get better not to be better”. I loved the honesty of that voice. That Jen Waldo combined it with a (to me) exotic piece of North Texas by having the heroine take up Urban Exploring as a hobby was an added bonus. It felt real and took me somewhere new.
‘Why Stuff Matters’ is equally quirky and exotic but, to my surprise, was in many ways a darker tale than ‘Old Buildings In North Texas’. The exotic part of the story for me is that it describes an Antiques Mall in a small town in North Texas where most of the traders have started their business after retiring from whatever they did in their previous lives. Many of them are in their eighties, with all the frailties and challenges that brings and yet they don’t want to think about either death or change. They hoard their stock and hold it to themselves with a protectiveness born of paranoia and greed. Their stuff is what matters to them.
These people do not at all resemble the mostly upper-class, pretending-to-be-upper-class, or too artsy or too lazy to make it in corporate life types who populate English antique markets. Nor are they tough-on-the-outside-but-cute-on-the-inside seniors. These people are tough, grasping, selfish and tenaciously holding on to what they see as their valuables. They are also larcenous and prone to violence. As we find out, they can be lethal when pushed.
Yet, surprisingly, that’s not the dark part. The darkness comes from the narrator of the story, Jessica Hockley. She recently inherited the Antique Mall and its collection of cantankerous old folks from her mother, who owned the Mall and ran it for many years.
It took me a while to realise that Jessica, who seems very forthright about her opinions and unhesitating in her actions, is an unreliable narrator. Jessica is drowning in grief. She has lost everything. She has separated herself from her past and treats her present as a dull but necessary meal. At first, I underestimated Jessica’s grief. I saw her as tough, unempathetic and practical. Bit by bit I realised that, before grief flood her lungs and stopped her life, she has been a caring person, capable of deep love; a teacher, a nurturer, a fixer of problems. She now tells herself that she is none of those things.
She’s almost convincing. But as she deals with the shallow, empty avarice of the old people around her it becomes clear that she can’t embrace it. Nor can she keep the distance that she tells herself she should from the twelve-year-old girl, daughter of her dead husband in his previous marriage, who is dumped on her for the summer by her uncaring, self-absorbed mother.. Although Jessica herself would deny it, ‘Why Stuff Matters’ is the story of Jessica rising slowly from the depths of her grief and finally breaking the surface and taking a breath.
The tone of the storytelling is factual and matter-of-fact- It has something of the flatness that comes from depression. Yet I think the book itself is full of life. Jen Waldo helped me see Jessica, her not-my-daughter guest and the old folk clearly without overtly judging any of them. It was a remarkable and memorable read.