I was in turns spellbound, amused and horrified by this novel. The title alone reveals much about who the protagonist is, where her head is at:
"I'm sorry to disrupt the peace was my stock apology; I used it all the time as my workplace, it was a good apology because it could mean so many different things to people. It could mean, I'm sorry, I made a mistake. It could mean, I'm sorry, I'll ruin you, bitch."
The dysfunctional, conflicted reality of Helen Moran's life is announced right from the opening paragraph, by means of deliberately cumbersome, twitchy language. Stilted, formulaic phrasing: "adoptive parents"; "not cheaply built"; "at your service"; "humble servant". The atmosphere in her adoptive parents' home is lugubriously intense, strained. Helen's brand of humor is dark, cynical, sharply pointed like a glove made of barbed wire.
Helen contrives to make her outward appearance and behavior strange, unwelcoming, provocative; and yet, paradoxically she remains concerned about how her actions are perceived. Even in my dream, I had an adoptive brother who killed himself. Suicide was off the table for me. I would never be able to commit suicide, because everyone would say that I had copied him.
Like a dramatic actress, Cottrell has immersed herself (and us) in Helen's persona; that angry voice never wavers as she clings to the edge of her personal abyss. Helen rationalizes her actions, at times taking satisfaction in her own perversity. These are the tactics of a person at war with her own history. She is perturbed by her parents' cheapness but finds herself, willy-nilly emulating them — wearing ill-fitting cast-off clothes, mismatched shoes; it's not simply poverty at work here, there's something else in play, a form of personal protest against harmony, conventionality. It's never quite clear how much of her adoptive parents' eccentricities and lack of empathy are actual and how much has been conjured up within Helen's own warped perception of reality; her adoptive parents have become, in Helen's mind, caricatures of themselves. There are four personalities in play here, not one of them well balanced —there's more than enough weirdness to go around.
All in all, an astonishing novel.