When I read the synopsis of Timothy Schaffert's The Coffins of Little Hope, I couldn't help myself: The main character is an octagenarian obituary writer? For real? That's something I've never seen before - count me in.
Coffins of Little Hope is a series of fictional constructs, buried artfully within each other, like Russian dolls or perhaps the layers of an onions. The title of the book is taken from a fictional book, around which some of the story revolves. The author of that book, in addition to creating his own book's characters and milieu, has created a fictional name and invented a persona for himself (think Lemony Snicket) - as has one of the focal characters of this book, Daisy - who appears to have invented a missing child for herself.
The story is narrated by S Myles, a somewhat celebrated obituary writer, who, having written the summation of each life in her dying small town, now narrates the death of the town. The townspeople are, of course, fascinated with Daisy's story of Lenore, filled with poignant details and yearning but sadly short on much tangible proof that the cild existed - but who still feels real enough to provoke much discussion and concern. As the mystery of Lenore is gradually investigated and revealed, so are all of the participants in the drama revealed, each of them also living, to some degree, in a fantasy of their own invention.
S Myles lives with her son Doc and her granddaughter Tiffany, the child of Myles's daughter Ivy, who has abandoned the child to follow her lover to Paris, imagining a great romance and being cared for forever. When her lover leaves, she remains in Paris, thinking that reinventing herself as a sophisticated Parisian will lure him back, because as Myles observes, "She'd been so enraptured by that portrait of the rest of her life, that it was not so easily reimagined." She does reimagine it, though, returning home to her child and trying to become her idea of a mother, which has little to do with what Tiff might need.
Tiff has formed close bonds with her uncle Doc, with whom she performs a magic act in which she, too, is a disappearing girl; she is also disappearing in a very real sense, wasting away by not eating, which her family notices a bit too slowly, because "we'd been so distracted by our own obsessing over what was best for Tiff that we'd let her drop from our sight."
The town, meanwhile, is teetering on the brink of oblivion, and in an attempt to save itself, begins to recreate an old-fashioned downtown to attract tourists, one which never existed in the first place. The townspeople are obsessed with fiction, from the "Miranda and Desiree" novel they eagerly await, to the next installment of the saga of the missing Lenore, which they also eagerly await.
Everything in The Coffins of Little Hope is an illusion, and what constitutes reality is very much a choice made by each character - and the reader. The difference between all the fictions is simply a matter of degree. Coffins is a finely crafted and thought-provoking gem of a book.