By William Walsh
Deliver Me is a dark nativity story, and Elle Nash is a writer who commandingly crafts wild scenes, who evokes raw emotions with an unadorned but penetrating vocabulary. As with her debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, Nash has here created a narrator who reports the details of her life without editorializing on the people in her orbit. This reserved narration amplifies the novel’s intensity when the action heats up.
We meet Dee-Dee, the novel’s narrator, working at a meat processing plant in the Missouri Ozarks, cutting chicken into finger lengths. The stress of her job is palpable, even though Dee-Dee is able to disassociate her work from the chickens she hears clucking at the other end of the production line.
Dee-Dee and her co-workers wear “scrubs, shoe wraps, rubber gloves, arm wraps, and masks.” The work is relentless. The workers go by their line numbers, not their given names. Number Three is particularly hard on Dee-Dee, and so is Number Five.
There are no clocks on the work floor. Time is kept by the “death counter.” No unscheduled bathroom breaks. Sanitizer spritzes the air at regular intervals:
If we manage to process 140 birds per minute, we know we’re near break time when the death counter approaches twenty-six thousand. At fifty thousand, first shift is over and my day is done.
At home, Dee-Dee can barely grip a can of chili, “the muscles in (her) hand ache” so much from the repetitive use of the pneumatic scissors. She soothes herself with fantasies of motherhood:
[A]nother life—wearing my baby in one of those baby wraps, gently stirring vegetables around a pan, steaming rice. The baby nestled between my breasts, her nose pressed against my sternum.
After five miscarriages, Dee-Dee is pregnant again. Her boyfriend, whom she calls “Daddy,” breeds and trades exotic insects, which also figure routinely in their sex life. Daddy has a thick scar on his cheek “from his chin to the bed of his eye.” Showing little interest in the pregnancy, he lectures Dee-Dee that “miscarriage is nature’s way of eliminating bad genes.”
Dee-Dee has “researched the numbers” and knows how the miscarriage rate falls after the first two months. Despite knowing this, she can’t keep herself from telling everybody that she’s pregnant. She miscarries again before her first doctor’s appointment but tells no one. Pretending to be pregnant for the remainder of the novel, Dee-Dee attends prenatal classes at a new hospital in a nearby town, stealing ultrasound pictures to show as her own. And she begins wearing a prosthetic belly that she ordered online.
Sloane, an old friend, returns to town and moves into an empty apartment in Dee-Dee’s fourplex. Growing up together, they attended a strict Pentecostal congregation led by the predatory Pastor Anderson. Sloane is beautiful and Dee-Dee had been devoted to her. They’ve had no contact for twenty years, since Sloane got pregnant as a teen and her family sent her away to live with an uncle in Florida.
Deliver Me is inventively structured in three parts, each labelled a “Trimester.” A full-page image of a fetus in position for delivery appears between each section. Curiously, the fetus grows smaller in the second and third trimesters. Unnumbered, the chapters carry a simple “XXXX” and a line drawing of a bumble bee from the bug collection Daddy keeps in their bedroom.
In a series of flashback chapters set between 1996 and 1998, Nash commandingly delivers Dee-Dee’s backstory with a genuine sense of urgency. We see Dee-Dee’s sexual attraction to Sloane bloom, and we see Sloane use that attraction to trick Dee-Dee into participating in a blood ritual because she “need(s) a virgin’s blood.”
Throughout the novel, the presence of Dee-Dee’s “Momma” is registered in short phone calls and voicemail messages. Judgmental, unsympathetic about Dee-Dee’s miscarriages and not supportive of her daughter’s determination to have a baby, Momma is surprisingly delighted when Sloane announces that she is pregnant.
The novel’s third trimester section finds Nash demonstrating, once again, her command of form. Shifting away from the previous sections’ flashback chapters, here Nash deftly offers short overlapping scenes, as the revelation of Dee-Dee’s fake pregnancy looms. She has been fired from her job at the meat processing plant. She commits a cruel act of revenge against Pastor Anderson and his family, which unfolds slowly, agonizingly. She becomes certain Sloane and the others know that her pregnancy is a ruse. A surprise baby shower, which her mother attends, pushes Dee-Dee closer to the novel’s bloody, inexorable conclusion.
Deliver Me is an immaculately conceived novel. Nash has brought to life a narrator whose quest to be a mother is frightening and absolutely brutal.