Review: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

Book cover: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink (The Mosaic Collective, 2019)

At 50, Libby has lived with her grandmother since childhood and is mourning Gram’s recent death. Her lifelong dream is to own her own home, away from the tenement where she’s been raised. She also longs to recreate Gram’s signature soup recipe—perhaps in hopes of restoring the sense of home Gram provided.

Her friend, Sibyl, is about 10 years younger and likes to think she’s found her security in spirituality and sensuality. Sibyl is convinced she knows what Libby needs while having no understanding of her friend’s grief.

Paige is a young woman working at the Laird Mansion Museum in the next state, pushing to finish her research paper before her baby arrives. She’s obsessed with finding a more personal side to the now-deceased MDM Laird and with clearing his name of hints of scandal.

The Red Journal is a carefully-imagined novel for the literary, even scholarly, reader who likes to chew over a novel and tease out its depths. Libby and Sibyl are each searching for sacred spaces in their own ways, and the heart of MDM Laird’s manor is another sacred space.

The story begins with Libby and Sibyl en route to visit the Laird Museum, and alternates this present with the recent past leading up to the journey. I would have found it an easier read in a linear timeline. Movement between multiple timelines is often done, and I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me here. It might be the short distance back in time, or the short duration of the “present” museum tour itself. Breaking the tour into sections may highlight the journey to the heart of the manor, and I’ve seen other readers commenting on enjoying the “dance” between timelines.

As well-written as each scene is, the novel felt long to me. I don’t think we needed as much of Libby’s soup-making and apartment-packing, Sibyl’s travels, or even as much depth in Paige’s research. I wonder, in fact, if the story needed Sibyl’s point of view at all. Possibly any key information in her scenes could have been introduced through Libby’s observations. As with a good soup, condensing could have strengthened the flavour, and readers would have still been able to observe two women’s very different searches for sacred space.

The novel also includes journal excerpts, perhaps to give readers extra clues to tease out the full story before Libby discovers it herself.

Sibyl’s point of view scenes often share rich memories of exotic travels, which will appeal to readers who love to travel (and armchair travellers). Her mashup of various spiritual beliefs shows its hollowness but might still sound appealing enough to lead seekers astray.

On the other side of belief, MDM Laird’s Bible-based faith has a few mentions and there’s some reference to God as “Father” near the end. The faith thread has enough hints for people who know their Bibles—even MDM’s name, Moses David Melchizidek—but biblical literacy is not a given for most mainstream readers.

I appreciated the chance to read about 40- and 50-year-old protagonists, as well as the (fictional) historical character MDM Laird’s exemplary relationships with the Native Americans he invited to dwell on his estate. His focus on keeping their families together was a refreshing counterpart to the true-life travesties imposed by both American and Canadian governments.

Deb Elkink is a skilled, award-winning author who writes at a deeper level than I can easily plumb. I’ve had to work harder than I like to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have it yet. I think the concentric layout of the Laird Mansion Museum estate somehow connects with the choice of narrative structure, circling back upon itself.

The Red Journal has a strong sense of place, in the unfolding history of the land around the manor and in Sibyl’s vividly-rendered exotic travelogues, which feel like the author has visited in person. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me, I appreciated the ending.

Deb Elkink has also written The Third Grace (a novel) and Roots and Branches: The Symbolism of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton (nonfiction). For more about the author and her work, visit debelkink.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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