Elizabeth, Ken Greenhall (1976)

Elizabeth is the story of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Cuttner, a peculiar girl who observes the world and people around her through the eyes and mindset of one much older. She’s fourteen going on forty.

The novel begins with an accident befalling Elizabeth’s parents. Her uncle, James, with whom she has a very close relationship, survives. After the tragedy, she begins living with her grandmother in New York City in the house where her uncle, aunt, and younger cousin also live. A tutor, Anne Barton, is hired to teach Elizabeth until she’s ready to return to school. Elizabeth would prefer not to go back, partly to stay close to Frances, the woman she sees only in mirrors. Frances, an ancestor executed centuries ago for witchcraft, first appeared at the family’s lake house, shortly before Elizabeth’s parents died. Now, Elizabeth is learning about, and using, her own unique powers.

A darker tale told in the first person, Elizabeth has the feel of a VC Andrews novel told in a more mature style. At first, Greenhall does a decent job of pulling the reader in and leaving them to wonder what, exactly, is going on, but it soon becomes apparent that Elizabeth is an unreliable narrator. Every statement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. As a result, we never really come to know the other characters. They’re flimsy and lack depth, and because they’re presented through Elizabeth’s skewed perception, we never know what’s true. Some are given more attention, the uncle and tutor, but others are merely there as plot contrivances, cousin Keith most notably.

Upon finishing the book, I was ambivalent, but quickly realized how much I disliked this book. The author presents an ending with no definitive answer about what’s occurred throughout. Some may like the ambiguity and being left to draw their own conclusions, it works for some books, but for this one, I think it’s a cop-out.

**Spoilers**

The novel can be taken at face value, with the belief that Elizabeth, like some of her ancestors, is a witch, and coming into her own. She enjoys her newfound powers and uses them to remove those who threaten her happiness or who are no longer useful; her parents, grandmother, and uncle. As the story progresses, the less plausible the witchcraft claim becomes, requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Elizabeth’s sanity comes into question fairly quickly given her bold pronouncements, including her tutor casting no reflection in mirrors.

At the novel’s start, Elizabeth informs us her parents don’t love each other and her father is an alcoholic. She also claims her father’s brother, James, is her lover. One could posit the sexual abuse, alcoholism, and her parents’ inattentiveness allows Elizabeth to create a fantasy world in which to escape. In that world, she imagines she can see a caring mother-figure in Frances, who informs her of her gift and encourages her to use it for her gain (empowerment for the powerless).

Through coincidence, her parents drown, her grandmother disappears, and her uncle James dies of a snake bite (an awful plot contrivance; we’re expected to believe James is reckless enough to head into the woods to find a rattlesnake to bring back as a gift for his son. Talk about straining credulity). She believes the rituals she’s performed, or just the thoughts she’s had, have caused those deaths to occur, but also claims she didn’t want them dead, just out of the way. The deaths, by the way, can all be rationally explained, something Elizabeth scoffs at.

Eventually, Elizabeth ends up in a psychiatric hospital, but only briefly, the details deliberately muddled. Suddenly, Miss loves-to-talk-about-herself isn’t saying much, except that the doctor is witless and no match for her extraordinary cunning. Topping it off, she claims to be pregnant.

Everyone in the book comes off in a bad light, because they’re presented through a distorted lens and the skewed, unproven statements of a snotty fourteen-year-old with delusions of grandeur. Elizabeth has a pretentious, sneering arrogance regarding everyone and everything. Talk about a superiority complex. If she’s truly involved with her uncle, she’s emotionally and psychologically damaged, yet she still makes for an unsympathetic protagonist. I should care, but I don’t. The incestuous relationship may not even be fact, but only unstable Elizabeth’s fantasy. I’m not adverse to controversial topics, I have a shelf full of Sade. But when it comes to the alleged incestuous relationship between Elizabeth and her uncle, Greenhall fails to commit and provide concrete proof of it, part of why I question the assertion in the first place.

When I was younger I saw James, my father’s brother, look from our dog to me without changing his expression. I soon taught him to look at me in a way he looked at nothing else.

She contends that because she’s now fourteen, has breasts and has gotten her period, she’s a woman, a femme fatale capable of entrancing anyone and everyone, making them love her and want her (fourteen-year-old girls didn’t think that way in the ’70’s, trust me). Sorry, your profound witchy woman is just a teenager going through an identity crisis as she enters adolescence, starts crushing on and fantasizing about her uncle, and sees other women as threats. It’s almost as if puberty has driven Elizabeth mad.

Greenhall uses Elizabeth as a means to expound on his particular views, rendering the character inauthentic; Elizabeth’s voice is not that of a realistic fourteen-year old. Because of that, the novel reeks of disingenuousness. Elizabeth is imbued with the pessimism, cynicism, and misanthropy of her creator, a middle-aged man. She’s oh-so-special.

My name is Elizabeth Cuttner, and I am fourteen years old. I know you would be more interested in my story if I were a middle-aged person, but I ask you to remember what you were like when you were fourteen. Is there a chance that you were more perceptive then than you are now?

If perceptive means haughty, narcissistic, nihilistic, and sociopathic, then no. Her world view is that of a French Decadent at the turn of the 20th century. A fourteen-year-old girl by way of a fifty-year-old male author who misjudged his ability. Many male authors are adept at writing female characters, even teenagers. This one isn’t. At it’s core, this book is more about Greenhall than his protagonist. Her perceptions and beliefs are really his, transplanted; Elizabeth is his stand-in, his avatar, his self-insertion. Worse still, there’s nothing definitive in this tale told by an idiot, there’s no clarity, not one thing explained. Greenhall isn’t being clever, he’s being lazy, and fails to deliver any satisfactory conclusion. And if he can’t be bothered enough to care about the story, neither can I.

A quick read, Elizabeth‘s premise held promise, but didn’t deliver. ** out of 5.

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