20. A debut novel: Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
List Progress: 23/30
Narratives are made up of characters making choices, which is one of the hardest things about writing characters with anxiety. When a character’s mental illness is characterized by being frozen with indecision, they are not often making choices that move the narrative forward, and what should be stories become static character studies. Emily Austin’s 2021 debut novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, tries to strike a balance between protagonist Gilda’s indecision and the reckless decisions she makes when backed into a corner (or anything she can misinterpret into a corner), and it often, but not always, succeeds in this.
Gilda is a young atheist lesbian who has recently been fired from her bookstore job for not showing up on too many different days, instead staying in bed, paralyzed with anxiety. She follows a flier for free counseling to what turns out to be a Catholic church, and the priest assumes she is coming to interview for the recently-vacated administrative assistant post. Rather than explain the misunderstanding, Gilda accepts the job and quietly fakes being both straight and Catholic, while also trying to learn more about her recently-deceased predecessor. Alongside the central kerfuffle, Gilda tries to muddle her way through a fledgling romantic relationship with a woman she met online, confronting her brother about his alcohol addiction, conquering the growing pile of every dish she owns in her bedroom, and dealing with the knowledge that everyone she has ever and will ever meet is eventually going to die. It’s all enough to drive a person mad.
Everyone in This Room is told in short chaotic snippets, flitting between present-day scenes, flashbacks, and cyclical internal monologues. It keeps everything moving quickly, but sometimes has the effect of being numbing, just too much chaos and anguish and fear flying at the reader in a stream of consciousness. It works well to illustrate Gilda’s degrading mental state, but doesn’t offer a lot of forward momentum to carry through the plot. And that’s even besides the times when Gilda is making terrible decisions, when the reader wants to cringe and read through their fingers.
There is a lot of texture and character in this novel and it takes the audience on a real personal journey, even if it doesn’t have anything particularly groundbreaking to say about faith, mental illness or death. But sometimes “keep going” is enough of a message, and what some people need to hear.
Would I Recommend It: Soft yes.