Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is Deeply Moving and Honest
In her debut novel, Cottrell masterfully renders the controlled chaos derived from loss
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Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell has one of the strangest narrators that I have read in a long time. Helen, the main character and narrator, draws the reader in right away with her stream-of-conscious thinking. It feels like she grabs your hand and starts running, dragging you behind her. You don’t know where she is going, when she will turn a new corner, but you follow her anyway. You want to follow her. Once you are adapted to her train-of-thought it is easy to follow her along as she investigates her adoptive brother’s suicide.
The thing about Helen is that she thinks everything is supposed to go a certain way. Akin to following the plot of a movie or book, she’s the hero. She is the center of the universe. When she gets even an inkling that’s she’s not, she becomes wounded and lashes out. One example, for instance, is when she decided to show up to her parents’ house to help them with their grief. In her head she pictured them welcoming her home with open arms and a plate of warm cookies. The thing is though, she didn’t let them know she was coming —
“It hurt me a little, that my adoptive parents were not expecting me, that they were so astonished by my arrival, that they seemed scandalized by my suitcase, by the mere suggestion that I would be staying a few nights with them in my childhood home… I made a note to myself that they had not greeted me with a plate of cookies and milk, not even tea and stale muffins, as I had pictured. Then I forced my way into the house because I was certain my adoptive parents were too astonished by my sudden appearance to invited me in.”
When she finds out that a grief counselor has been helping her parents through the loss, she tries to undermine him at every turn. She rolls her eyes, she makes snide comments, scoffs at any religious comfort he tries to bring to her parents. She becomes jealous that they are relying on him instead of her. She even tries to make her adoptive funeral about her —
“I had heard them talking about the funeral in the kitchen, it was scheduled for tomorrow morning, even though no one directly asked me to go, not even my adoptive parents. I’ll show them. I’ll just show up and sit in the front row of the church, right in front of Chad Lambo, and everyone will see me and my sisterly mourning, I will create a mourning spectacle of myself.”
Her reactions to things makes the reader question her sanity, and highlights her self-centeredness. Like immediately after finding out her adoptive brother killed himself, she focuses on buying the perfect black sweater. In fact, she gets overwhelmed with the options for sweaters since she is used to wearing whatever clothes she finds on the street.
She then turns her focus on how the suicide is really at the worst possible time for her since she is on probation at work. When flowers arrive for the funeral, instead of just placing them on the table, she dumps them into a mop bucket full of bleach. She points out what she did to her parents and waits for approval like a little kid and doesn’t understand why they died and why her parents are upset.
Not many writers can pull off this sense of controlled chaos like Cottrell does, let alone adding that on top a suicide mystery, tension of race, and exploring adoption. Cottrell does a great job of balancing these many plates and keep them spinning. Helen is unlikable enough to be interesting but not too unlikeable that the reader doesn’t care about her. She uses Helen’s family and friends as a dose of reality, reminding the reader that what Helen’s doesn’t necessarily match everyone else’s.
They are constantly exasperated by her antics, some the characters flat out say they don’t like her. She uses body language to show the chilly distance between Helen and parents and partner that with key flashbacks. The choice to not use dialogue tags creates more confusion and forces the reader to really focus on the words. If read too quickly, you might missing something and have to reread the conversation again. You cannot read this book quickly.
She creates empathy for all her characters, whether they are likable or not. She also creates a conversation about suicide that should not be ignored. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is a book you can’t put down, and once you do, the whole world shifts.