Lily's Odyssey
by Carol Smallwood


All Things That Matter Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-984-09845-3.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 07/05/2010

Fiction: Mainstream; Fiction: Mystery

It's been a long time since I have so reluctantly put down a book upon completion, not simply because the story was so compelling but also the writing. Opening the pages of Lily's Odyssey has been a sacred activity that I have mindfully measured out in small, savored doses.

A lily is a symbol of purity while an odyssey, when we think of Odysseus, is a heroic journey accompanied by the gods. As we accompany Lily through the decades of her journey—childhood, marriage, motherhood, divorce, grandmotherhood—we find her an endearing representative of this passage of countless contemporary women, who are largely unaccompanied by the gods.

At age three—following her father's death in the war and her gardener mother's death a week later when their home burns—Uncle Walt, Lily's father's brother, and Aunt Hester adopt Lily and her brother, Vincent, 5. The story opens with Lily, at retirement age, going to the hospital for her final visit with Uncle Walt, who is dying.

A few days later, Lily's brother Vincent, now a Catholic bishop, leads the congregation in Uncle Walt's memorial service. Vincent honors Uncle Walt as "...a good friend, a trusted neighbor, a public-minded citizen, a fond relative, a beloved and devoted father to his adopted children," then adds, "Walter was God's chosen, the salt of the earth."

Lily is in her 30s when her "time bomb" goes off and her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms begin. Smallwood shows us how, through Lily's relationships with her aunt, uncle, husband, church, as well as her lifelong introspection, when the human mind experiences too much trauma, it is forever altered. As Lily embarks upon connecting the threads of her past trauma with her present behaviors, we take each step with her in the lifelong, convoluted, and very difficult journey. Smallwood's unique skill allows her reader to experience what Lily experiences at different points during her odyssey. We are cushioned when Lily's mind cushions her suffering through denial or dissociation, so she can cope and go on with her life. As healing brings Lily's life into clearer focus, so does the reader also experience more clarity.

There is a delicate balance and haunting grace to Smallwood's words. Lily's Odyssey is an exquisite psychological detective novel that explores how family, marriage, and religion each can play powerful roles in denial, repression, and dissociation. Spending time with this book can be equated with entering a hallowed space that explores the labyrinth of a woman's wounded psyche with reverence, insight, intelligence, honesty, and unusual skill. Lily's Odyssey is singular and stands well ahead of any of the numerous books I've read in its ability to portray what that long journey is like.


Carol Smallwood's work has appeared in English Journal, Michigan Feminist Studies, The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Journal of Formal Poetry, The Writer's Chronicle, The Detroit News, and anthologies. She's a 1020 Short List Finalist, Eric Hoffer Award for Best New Writing; 2009 National Federation of State Poetry Societies Award Winner, and appears in Contemporary Authors; Who's Who in America. Lily's Odyssey, her first novel, is her 22nd published book.

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