Winner of the PEN-USA Award for Fiction: "My Happy Life" by Lydia Millet (2023)

When it comes to literature, there are moments when a book emerges as a masterpiece, a work that captures the essence of human existence with such profound clarity that it resonates as if it were the author's final testament. Lydia Millet's third novel, "My Happy Life," is one such extraordinary work that has garnered well-deserved recognition, including the prestigious PEN-USA Award for Fiction.

An Unforgettable Tale of Compassion

"My Happy Life" introduces us to an enigmatic and nameless protagonist, a woman with an exceptional talent for compassion. Abandoned within the confines of a derelict mental hospital, she chronicles her life's experiences on the room's walls. Her journey begins with a childhood marked by cruelty and abuse in an orphanage, followed by a lifetime scarred by exploitation and the tragic loss of her only child. Despite these hardships, this remarkable woman remains incapable of harboring bitterness or blame. Instead, she exudes an unparalleled generosity, finding grace in the most unexpected of places.

The Locked Room

The story unfolds in a locked room, abandoned by the world outside, and its stark portrayal is profoundly moving. The door is locked from the outside, and the custodians of the hospital have vanished, leaving the protagonist alone. The anticipation of the inevitable swinging ball, signifying the building's impending demolition, adds a layer of eerie suspense. The protagonist, however, remains resilient, finding solace in her solitary existence.

The Comfort of Memories and Dreams

The room itself becomes her sanctuary, a seamless cocoon that encapsulates her existence. It is within these confines that she clings to both dreams and memories. Her vivid recollections, scrawled on the walls, serve as a testament to her unwavering spirit. She shares her anticipation of an unexplained event, a hope that someday the door will melt, granting her passage to the world beyond.

The Precious Few Possessions

Within the room, her possessions are minimal yet hold great significance. A threadbare towel, a tooth, a pressed leaf, and a delicate oval of glass encased in silver—all represent fragments of her past and her happy life. Even two paper shoes with ruffled ankles bear a unique charm, signifying the resilience of the human spirit.

The Physical and Emotional Scars

This resilient woman carries not just physical but also emotional scars. Her bent foot, the intricate design on her back, her unique ear, and the purple spots on her kneecaps are a testament to the struggles she's endured. Each imperfection is a memory etched into her body, a mark of her journey.

A Mysterious Bracelet

She possesses an orange plastic hospital bracelet that has defied time. It symbolizes endurance and survival, akin to the majestic rocks and mountains that stand tall for centuries, witnessing the passage of countless lives.

A Journey on the Back of a Great White Bird

Her imagination becomes her sanctuary, a place where she can escape the confines of her room. She envisions herself on the back of a great white bird, soaring high above the earth. The bird represents freedom, and the feathers envelop her in warmth and protection as she gazes upon the world below.

A Harsh Reality

The room, however, is far from ideal. It lacks the comforts of modern living—a lack of matches, books, food, and even windows. Her sustenance is drawn from cold water, and she is slowly wasting away. The room offers no escape, no respite from her solitude.

A Box and the Kindness of Strangers

The woman's journey began in a box labeled "Brown Ladies Narrow 8" that was found on a rain-soaked sidewalk. She was taken in by kind strangers, one of whom, Mr. Rubens, left an indelible mark on her life.

A Life of Foster Families

Her life meanders through a series of foster families, each with its unique challenges and complexities. Mrs. Ray, a memorable character in her life, enlightens her about the workings of the state, the church, the police, and Children's Protective Services.

The Notion of "Extra"

The concept of being "extra" is central to her experiences. Mrs. Ray, in her own way, conveys the harsh realities of life as an extra child, the surplus that society often struggles to accommodate.

A Unique Memory

A vivid memory from her past portrays a sense of unity and shared sorrow among people waiting in a timeless place. This memory holds a special place in her heart, serving as a reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity.

In conclusion, "My Happy Life" by Lydia Millet is a literary masterpiece that delves into the depths of human resilience, compassion, and the indomitable spirit to find joy amidst adversity. This heart-rending and heartwarming tale leaves an indelible mark on the reader's soul, a testament to the power of storytelling and the enduring strength of the human spirit. It is a work of fiction that transcends its genre, leaving a lasting impact on all who have the privilege of reading it.

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