Feb 7 11, The Richmond
You open a book, hoping to be pulled into its pages, though never expecting to find yourself woven into their fabric. Yet, there you are, on the first page of Alyssa Knickerbocker‘s debut novella Your Rightful Home (Flatmancrooked), trying on clothes and trading identities with your best friend, Lydia. It’s not so hard to believe, you simply have to accept the conditions in the opening paragraph:
To play dress up, you have to believe in the power of clothes. You are not you anymore. You are Snow White. You are Joan Jett. You are a pirate slave girl with shackles on your wrist. You are your mother circa 1968. You are a bird. You are Lydia, sometimes, and she is you.
Although any good story invites its readers to step into the shoes of its characters, Knickerbocker’s masterful use of the second person, employed throughout the entire text, makes it uncannily easy to do so. You are not you anymore. Instead, you are an introspective though inhibited eight-year-old girl living in a tiny town on an island surrounded by the Puget Sound. Your innocent days of playing dress-up are about to come to an abrupt end when your childhood best friend, Lydia, disappears. Pretending ceases to be child’s play, as a truth you withhold about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy matures into a lie.
You mature into adulthood continuing to play dress up with Lydia by transforming your memory of her into a costume. “You put on Lydia like a dress” and go through life telling her story to anyone who is willing to listen. This is your coming of age story. However, to leave it at that would be like staring in the mirror and describing what’s reflected there at face value—far too superficial. You are not telling this tale for you; “you are doing this for her, so that she can live.” In doing so, you begin to inundate your coming of age tale with that of an imaginary other, moving towards that which is not reflected in the mirror—that which has disappeared. Seeking first to be Lydia, later to find her, you finally find yourself—struggling to obtain your own skin.
Yet, in what ways do you look for it? Every time you assume a new role in your life you change brands of cigarettes; you become wife, mother, divorcee. When were you last yourself? Could it be Your Rightful Home is a mirage—a fiction you weave from the stories you tell about yourself? Have these many skins you’ve called your rightful home ever felt authentic?
Knickerbocker proposes that a search for our rightful identity, our true home, may be absurd and counter-productive. In trying to invent ourselves, we begin to “change things—little things” about our stories, losing grip on reality until we risk becoming lost in fiction. Eventually, even you, the narrator of Knickerbocker’s story, begins to “forget which things you changed and which things are true” as you move from skin to skin. “Even the island itself—a real place, your home—starts to sound invented, made up, as you reduce it to a few key adjectives.” You’re trying on unfamiliar clothes again. Yet, this time, entirely aware that you are pretending.
Filling these unfamiliar skins should come as second nature by this point in your story. Whole chapters of your life have been summed up in three words, such as “you grow up.” You bounce from eight to eighteen, just like that, and find yourself forced to concoct a story—to interact with the text. That you can and want to fill in the gaps is evidence of Knickerbocker’s ability to include precisely the right details and her sly intimation that you will not tire of inventing yourself “because if you did, the game would be over.”
Trust me, I didn’t want it to end either. So much so, in fact, that I read it again (highly recommended). Your Rightful Home is a remarkably well-crafted story, told in such an honest and insightful voice that it stuck with me and compelled me to keep pretending long after I put it down.