I have so many questions, Mrs. Caliban

The title of this post was my first thought after reading this wonderful, bewildering, and somewhat depressing novella. For such a short story, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban has so many holes in its plot, and possible interpretations for these gaps, that I am not really sure where to start. I guess I should start at the beginning.

Dorothy Caliban finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage, often at home listening to the radio, cooking dinner and cleaning the house while her husband goes to work every morning and always finds some excuse to “stay late at work.” She knows he’s seeing other women, but feels powerless to do anything about it. So she stays at home, listening to the radio and living out fantasies in her head as she tries to cope with the wreck her life has become (two lost children, very few friends, etc.). Then, one day, a radio broadcast reports that a dangerous, non-human fugitive has escaped his confinement and is on the run. Later, when this fugitive walks through her kitchen door as she’s preparing dinner, instead of calling the police, Mrs. Caliban offers him salad instead. A romance between her and this reptilian humanoid blooms between them, and forms the foundation from which the rest of the story unfolds. Dorothy starts calling him Larry, and decides to help him avoid detection until such time that he can return to his home in the sea.

So, this is already a little strange. But what is stranger is how the groundwork is laid out for the reader to question everything Mrs. Caliban perceives. During those radio broadcasts, for example, Mrs. Caliban experiences very vivid daydreams of how she wishes her life was. They are so vivid, in fact, that she loses track of time. Who’s to say that she isn’t just imagining Larry, if her daydreams are so realistic? And it’s not even that his existence seems a bit too convenient to me, it’s also that Dorothy insists that Larry stay in an empty wing of her home until the search for him dies down. She even goes as far as to teach Larry how to drive. You mean to tell me that no one in her neighborhood, or her husband (who, though often late, does come home) wouldn’t notice signs of an intruder in their midst? It’s all very odd, but I had to keep reading to figure out how it all ends.

I question whether Larry is real or not, but no reader can deny the emotional impact he has on Dorothy’s life. She has fallen in love again, and the people around her begin to notice how much happier she seems. And her journey from lonely housewife to fulfilled woman makes for intriguing reading. And it makes the ending of Mrs. Caliban that much more dramatic and memorable.

You can read or listen to Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls through Overdrive/Libby.

Mrs. Caliban was also the inspiration for Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 movie The Shape of Water. You get the DVD through Heights Libraries.

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