Isobel wakes up from a pleasant dream to find herself staring at a strange, ornate ceiling with a stain in one corner. As Isobel thinks circuitously of ways to describe the ceiling, she laments that the “word factory” is already at work. Isobel knows that today is going to be a bad day—last night, she was thrown out of her friend Kate’s house and forced to walk home after the two got into an argument when Isobel spaced out and acted superior while a mutual friend told a “repulsive” story. Kate told Isobel to leave, and derided her for only coming over to “see what [she could] pick up.” Isobel notes that a lot of people only go to Kate’s to pick other people up.
Since leaving the boarding house, it’s clear that Isobel has continued to try and lose herself in a “crowd”—this one is even more unsavory, it seems, than the clique of students from the university. Nonetheless, Isobel craves both escape and belonging by any means. All the while, Isobel is being dogged by the “word factory,” which is a repetitious mechanism in her head which seems to be trying to tell her something.
A man named Michael followed Isobel out of the party and asked if she wanted to come home with him—Isobel accepted, and it is his bed she’s in now. As the word factory spins, Isobel runs to the bathroom to relieve herself and wash her face. There is a bookcase in the bedroom, and Isobel crouches in front of it to look through Michael’s titles. Michael wakes up and tells Isobel that he didn’t take her for the bookish type. Suddenly embarrassed by her nakedness, Isobel reaches for a book. Michael wonders aloud to himself why “girls like [Isobel] do things like this.”
Isobel has gone home with a stranger who feels it is his right to examine her and question her motives as he sees fit. Isobel is searching for some kind of escape or belonging, but it seems to come at the price of her dignity.
Isobel lists reasons for doing “things like this”—meaning one-night stands. She thinks of the “dubious” connection with love; the choice to do it just because one can; the desire to join the human race; and a final, deeper reason, with no words, which can only be likened to inertia. Isobel coolly tells Michael that she might have wondered why he does things like this, but she wouldn’t have asked. Isobel looks at the book she is holding—it is called Words of the Saints. After Michael accuses Isobel of disapproving of him, she decides to leave and to steal the book.
Isobel’s main desire throughout the novel has been to join “the human race” and to be part of the “crowd”—the events of her childhood were so traumatic and so alienating that she has never felt normal, and she has always wondered what she is missing on the other side of the divide.
Isobel carefully places the book back on the shelf. Michael lies back and shuts his eyes; Isobel gets dressed and asks if Michael wants coffee. He tells her that there is stuff to make it in the kitchen, and she goes in to find it. While she looks for coffee in the cupboard, she hears the bathroom door shut, and the shower run; Isobel quickly runs back into the bedroom, steals the book, and leaves the house.
Isobel is, as always, drawn toward books and stories—this book in particular seems to have a very strong pull on her, and it is only later that she will discover why. The book’s title, Words of the Saints, seems to connect back to her childhood preoccupation with maintaining a “state of grace.”
Isobel runs for a city-bound bus. She walks to the back and lets the new book fall open to a random page—it opens on St. John of the Cross, whom Isobel knows is “not a fun character at all.” She reads that for the soul to become enlightened and “possessed by the pure and simple light of God,” it must first be cast away. Isobel closes the book, wishing she had a soul to cast away in the first place.
Isobel’s childhood obsession with the saints has come back to her yet again. Whereas when she was small, she believed she could earn her place among the saints, Isobel now feels she is so unclean and far from grace that she doesn’t even have a soul.
Isobel gets off the bus in the center of town, grabs a coffee, and then goes to a public restroom to do her hair. She looks at her face in the mirror and hates it, as “so much of it [is] from her mother.” Isobel thinks she has “a face made for gloom.” Isobel thinks of all the words her mouth has said and all the things her eyes have seen, and she considers how deeply she loves the wide, bright world around her. Isobel is so caught up in her reverie that when she leaves the bathroom, she nearly forgets her new book. As Isobel retrieves it and leaves, she thinks about how her love of the world comes from the books she has read over the nineteen years of her life.
Whereas Isobel’s stark, strong resemblance to her mother bothered her very little when she first moved to the city and felt she had so much ahead of her, it now deeply unsettles her. Isobel has to remind herself that her face is her own—that just because it resembles her mother’s it is not hers, and that Isobel is her own person with her own hard-won sense of agency.
Isobel returns to the rooming house where’s she’s staying, and tries to buoy herself as she enters the “squalor” of her room. “Squalor within,” she thinks, “demand[s] squalor without,” and sees the word factory in her brain as evidence of her internal decay and her descent into silence and solitude. Isobel begins cleaning up her room, putting clothes into a laundry bag, wishing she had a cause to live for—still, she knows whatever it will be will have to find her first.
Isobel is caught up in a cycle of self-hatred and degradation that has extended from within her to affect her living circumstances. Isobel is uncertain of her place in the world, and while she once longed to fit in and believed she could, she fears now that she will always be on the outskirts of things looking in.
Isobel looks around her dingy room, thinking of how she could spruce it up. There is a loose flap of wallpaper she longs to fix, or cover up with a panel of embroidery, but remembers her sewing teacher from years ago with hatred and misery. The teacher had humiliated Isobel for her subpar work in front of the entire class, berating her for her “vulgar bad taste.” Isobel knows that her sewing teacher is, if not dead, at least very far away now, and that Isobel could take up sewing whenever she likes—this, she says, is “freedom.”
There is so much trauma and pain in Isobel’s childhood that even simple things like embroidery are tinged with a sense of pain and humiliation. Nevertheless, Isobel is able to remind herself that she is free—that she is her own person and is completely in charge of her life now.
Isobel runs out to the shop and purchases all the supplies she needs for embroidery work. As she gets her materials ready, she thinks absentmindedly about the stolen book. She wonders if religion is what gave the book its alluring power over her that caused her to need to steal it—she used to think a lot about God as a child, but now realizes that she uses God more as an imaginary friend than a moral compass. Isobel decides that the book does not symbolize religion to her, but instead communication and understanding.
It is easy for Isobel to conflate her desires to escape into religion and into stories as one, or confuse the impulses—but she steadfastly believes in this instance that it is the escape of words, not the desire to escape again into grace, which has pulled her towards Michael’s book.
Isobel feels herself pulled back toward the book—she knows she must finish it. She opens it back up to Saint John of the Cross and begins reading the instructions “for entering the dark night of the senses,” and giving away one’s soul. The first rule is to “do those things which bring thee into contempt, and desire that others may do them.” Isobel believes she does that quite all right. The second is to “speak disparagingly of thyself.” Isobel notes that she does that plenty. The third is to “think humbly and contemptuously of thyself.” Isobel thinks that these rules are a perfect picture of “Isobel the nuisance.” She laughs at the fact that she is on her way to heaven, and didn’t even know it.
Isobel amuses herself by realizing that the requirements of saintliness and grace are all things that she, due to her deep trauma and poor self-image, already practices unintentionally. This amuses Isobel, and certainly, to some degree, saddens her—even her arrival at a state of grace is not her own, but just another compounding side effect of all the suffering she has gone through over the years.
Isobel traces a pattern for her embroidery. She knows that tomorrow she must go home to the suburb she grew up in, and retrace her steps so as to find a memory that will give her a clue as to why the book holds such sway over her. She recalls a memory of being bullied by a girl in her class who barred the lavatory door to Isobel for so long that she peed her pants, and then had to waddle home soiled. Isobel looks back on this sad memory of herself with a “new tolerance”—she realizes she could be either the waddler or the bully, as one has “so little choice” in what one does as a child.
Isobel has spent so long running from the traumas of her childhood and trying to escape her past that she never considered that perhaps looking it straight in the face would provide her with clarity, purpose, and closure. Now, as she is struck by the idea of returning home, she realizes that much of her childhood was out of her control—so, too, were many other people’s childhoods, and she must accept the truth of her past with grace in order to move on from it.
The next day, after lunch, Isobel gets ready to return to her hometown. It is only two miles away, but she feels that though it is a “short journey in space, it [is] a long one in time.” She left less than a year ago, but still feels like her childhood suburb belongs to “earlier days” entirely. As Isobel boards the bus that will take her home, she thinks that though she is mortal, she must live as if she were immortal—otherwise, she wonders, what’s the point?
Isobel’s desire to move on from her past has created a strange disconnect within her—she is very close in both time and space, technically, from her mother’s death and her journey to the city, but has filled that time with so much self-discovery and emotional weight that it feels like a great amount of time has passed and a lot of change has occurred.
Isobel gets off the bus at the main street of her home suburb. She is amazed by the quiet all around her. As she grows anxious, the word factory in her head starts up, but she clutches her book and feels protected. As she passes the church, she feels guilty for having skulked around the church without going in so often as a child, for fear of being seen and reported to her mother. Now, Isobel goes inside, and feels a sense of “shadowy peace,” though above the confessional, she senses “guilt and unease” hovering. Things are different than she remembers them—the church is bigger than in her memory but the pulpit smaller.
Isobel’s complicated relationship to religion—a thing she saw as a means of escape—comes back to the forefront of her mind as she encounters the church so soon after finding the book of writing on the saints in Michael’s flat.
Isobel is assaulted by a memory of an arithmetic test in school. She got every question right, and so was allowed to sit while the rest of her classmates were forced to stand up against the wall and answer questions, and were beaten by the nuns when they were wrong. After class, an angry pack of classmates chased Isobel through the schoolyard, but when the leader of them finally caught up to her, he didn’t do anything to her—he just ran away back into the crowd. Isobel considers how “in a true memory,” one doesn’t see oneself clearly—all of the “miserable self-images” are simply invention.
Even Isobel’s memories of being bullied or taunted at school are not as bad as her memories of being punished and abused by her mother. The schoolchildren who were Isobel’s classmates could not find the strength to actually attack her—but her own mother didn’t even need courage, just the slightest provocation.
Isobel walks out of the church and experiences another memory—the moment she received her state of grace, unexpectedly, and struggled so hard to keep in it for a few weeks. She remembers struggling to understand the “rules” of a state of grace, reading obsessively about the saints and trying to discover the secret of grace itself. She doesn’t recall reading the book she has now in her childhood, but concedes that she might have—at the very least, coming into possession of a book with the word “Saints” on the cover was “enough to bring back the calm of the season” of her childhood state of grace.
Isobel realizes that she was comforted by and drawn to Michael’s book on saints because the state of grace she experienced in childhood was one of the only times during which she felt any sort of reprieve from her mother’s intense control and abusive behavior.
Isobel is mildly disappointed that religious was, after all, the meaning behind her connection to the book. She continues wandering her hometown, walking the route from school to home. She thinks she should go by her house and “lay a ghost or two” down. As she approaches her house, she hears a voice calling her name. Her first instinct is to run—she remembers her mother telling her to run, as she had “put a lady’s name in the paper,” and that lady was going to have her put in jail. It is too late, though—Isobel is caught. She sees her old neighbor, Mrs. Adams, coming towards her and smiling brightly. Isobel is shocked.
Isobel wants to face her past and discover more about herself—she is haunted by “ghosts” which she wants to get rid of. As her neighbor approaches, Isobel confronts one of those “ghosts” directly—a woman from her past whom her parents had turned into a symbol fear and shame. Isobel is consequently surprised to see that Mrs. Adams is now approaching her with a sunny attitude and open joy at Isobel’s presence.
Mrs. Adams asks Isobel what she’s doing with herself, and Isobel answers that she’s working at an importer’s office. Mrs. Adams invites Isobel in for a cup of tea—Isobel remembers the old fear that Mrs. Adams would call the police on her before realizing “what rubbish” that fear is. As Isobel follows Mrs. Adams into her home, she laments the “years of misery” her mother and father caused her.
Isobel has escaped from many of the fears of her childhood, but the impulses which the trauma and paranoia of her youth instilled in her are difficult to ignore.
Mrs. Adams brings tea and biscuits to the table, and tells Isobel she has something she wants to show her. She leaves the room and returns with a photo album. She opens it to a picture of a newspaper cutting, and asks Isobel if she remembers it. Isobel reads the cutting—it is a poem Isobel wrote about Mrs. Adams and her cat Smoke when she was nine years old. Isobel recalls Mrs. Prendergast’s story of the baby in the baking dish.
As the realization that Mrs. Adams lovingly kept Isobel’s poem all these years washes over her, she is reminded of the baby in the baking dish—the baby in need of saving, the tormented child on the brink of extinction. Isobel’s suffering as a child was so entrenched and so systematic that no one could save her—and yet Mrs. Adams’s tenderness now provides the sense that perhaps there is still time to be saved.
Mrs. Adams tells Isobel that the poem “thrilled” her—she loved the cat very much, and when the poem was published in the newspaper, she delighted that Smoke was famous. The cat has since died, Mrs. Adams says, but when she wants to remember him, she looks at Isobel’s poem. She tells Isobel that when the poem was published she was so happy that she bought Isobel a small book to paste her poems into, but that whenever she called Isobel in the street to come inside and get her present, Isobel ran away. Mrs. Adams adds that she tried to give the book to Mrs. Callaghan, who said that it would only encourage Isobel to “waste time” instead of completing her schoolwork.
Isobel always believed that she had committed some egregious act of betrayal against Mrs. Adams by putting her name in the paper—Isobel now sees how ridiculous the lie was, how devastating its effects were, and how her parents, through their machinations, effectively cut Isobel off from having any good, nourishing, or healthy relationships in her life.
Isobel realizes that her parents never wanted a writer in the house—they never wanted anyone who could record what went on there or allow other people to bear witness to it. Isobel says meekly that she had always thought Mrs. Adams was angry because Isobel put her name in the paper. Mrs. Adams asks Isobel whatever would have made her think that, and then, realizing that the answer is her mother, Mrs. Adams states that Mrs. Callaghan was “a strange woman.” Mrs. Adams tells Isobel sadly that she doesn’t have the book anymore—she gave it to her niece.
There were people in the world who wanted to be kind to Isobel, and the realization that her parents willfully held her back from any sense of affection or understanding hurts her deeply. Mrs. Adams was only trying to support and admire Isobel, but Isobel’s parents created a web of terror, paranoia, and self-doubt that prevented Isobel from seeing Mrs. Adams’ good intentions.
Isobel finishes her tea and thanks Mrs. Adams—she knows she has to leave soon, as she feels she is “coming to pieces in great slabs.” As Mrs. Adams ushers Isobel into the street, she feels “artesian tears rising from the center of the earth.” She hurries down the street, cursing her parents in her mind and out loud as “spiteful tormenting bastards.” She realizes that her father was in many ways just as bad as her mother, as he helped to instill the myth about Mrs. Adams in her. Isobel sobs as she makes her way down the road, and her tears drown out all thoughts except for one: “I am a writer.”
Isobel is shattered by the realization that her parents inflicted so much more pain upon her than she’d even realized. Isobel was always meant to be a writer, but her recording the goings-on of her household would have forced her parents to see—and threatened the idea that others would see—the extent of their abuse and manipulation.
Isobel worries that it is too late for her to pursue her dream, but as the crying lets up, she realizes that she can choose to be a writer if she wants to be—she can choose anything in the world. She decides to give into the word factory at last, and wonders if it has, all along, been the poor baby trying to get out of the baking dish. Isobel, feeling much better, continues heading through the street, towards a shop where she can buy an notebook. In the shop, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror—she is “wild-haired, blubbered, [and] red-eyed.” Isobel thinks that this moment is the happiest of her life.
Isobel has to remind herself continually that her life is her own—her past trauma does not have to dictate her present life. She realizes that there is still time to save herself. Instead of searching for an escape, she must seek deliverance from her past through stories, words, and books of her own invention.
After purchasing the book, Isobel heads home. Back in her room, she opens up the notebook and begins writing a story called “The Book is Gone”—it is from Michael’s perspective, as he talks with a friend about the girl who stole his book early in the morning after a one-night stand. As she writes, she realizes she must send the book back to Michael—she can live without it, and has her own words now to carry as a talisman instead.
Isobel no longer needs to rely solely on other people’s works or words to sustain her. Now in control of the word factory in her mind and able to produce stories of her own, it seems that Isobel has finally accepted that she was always meant to be a writer.
The next morning at work, Isobel’s friends ask her how her weekend was. Unable to tell them all she has been through in just a few days, she simply says it was “very nice,” and smiles so happily that Rita wonders aloud if Isobel has met someone. Isobel uncovers her typewriter and smiles at it. “Oh, yes,” she thinks to herself, “I met someone.”
Isobel’s joy at finally succeeding in her journey of self-discovery is so great that even her coworkers can sense the unbridled joy and sense of peace and calm radiating from her.