It’s often difficult to accurately recall just how subjective teenage experience can be. We all like to think we grow up with increasing sense of awareness about ourselves, about our place in the world and the people have around us. But so much of childhood is constructed out of fractured, distorted memories, formed not just by our own attempts to grapple with our own story, but also by the conscious and unconscious influences of friends, peers and family.
And we can lose sight of this when dealing with teenagers, particularly those like Tash Carmody, the protagonist of Sarah Epstein’s Small Spaces – a teenager on the absolute precipice of adulthood.
They may be a breath away from adulthood, but teenagers are still children. It’s easy to forget.
Despite Tash making plans for university and juggling assessments in her final year of school, Epstein shows us just how much she is in need of adult support. And not just support, but recognition. Someone to just listen to her.
Having possibly witnessed a traumatic event as an 8-year-old, Tash is still struggling nine years later. Chapters in her present, final year of school are woven into transcripts of her sessions with a psychiatrist when she was younger, and Epstein invites us to chart a path from the scared and confused small child to the traumatised young adult.
In this way, with its parallel points of view, Small Spaces evokes the structure and tension of Gone Girl. We are given parallel timelines, with connective tissue, but we slowly begin to realise that the early timeline may not line up perfectly with the current timeline. Tash’s current point of view may not be one the reader can entirely trust. Events occur without explanation; memories and imaginings coincide and coalesce until even she acknowledges that she may not be the best guide to what is occurring in her life.
It is here that Small Spaces works so wonderfully: the conflict is not between duelling characters’ control of the story as it is in Gone Girl, but in the duelling thoughts in Tash’s head. Rather than guessing which character is going to come out on top, we read on, terrified that Tash’s own sense of self, her own wellbeing, will not survive the conflicts with her past.
And this is because on the surface, Small Spaces is a thriller about the past coming back to haunt the present. But underneath that, this is much more a story about one person’s attempt to navigate and survive childhood trauma. And Tash has to do it all alone. Her parents are either too busy or too exhausted to deal with the ongoing difficulties Tash has, particularly as now she should be old enough and responsible enough to deal with life. And despite a supportive best friend and a growing reconnection with an old friend, Tash is increasingly isolated from everyone in Small Spaces, except her conflicting thoughts. And her childhood imaginary friend.
The scenes of Tash’s memories are written with wonderfully spare and haunting descriptions, giving the reader not only a clear look at how disturbed the 8-year-old Tash was by visits from this childhood spectre, but also leaving us thoroughly disturbed as well. Tash is uncertain how much of this is fantasy, how much is dream, and how much is a reconstruction of something that might have happened. And if she doesn’t know, then the reader is too, jettisoned from any sense of control or comfort. Reality teeters on the edge, and then falls. Rather than the reader gaining a stronger sense of Tash’s struggles as the novel progresses, the growing divide between her memories and her actions shock the reader with how much their point of view in the story is unravelling, how little control Tash has over her story.
Small Spaces is a frightening, tense portrait of teenage trauma, where the only possible comfort is recognising trauma in others.