At some point, every kid who had Jehovah’s Witness classmates must have wondered what happened when their secretive peers skipped the after-school extracurriculars and disappeared behind their front doors. For curious outsiders, Watch How We Walk provides a fascinating, though disturbing, portrait.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses who people Jennifer LoveGrove’s first novel are oppressive and abusive. The book opens with a young woman, Emily, slicing little Ls into her forearm with a knife. The letter L is for Lenora, Emily’s late sister, who was “disfellowshipped” at 16 for turning punk and having premarital sex. Emily embarks on a vague quest to avenge her sister’s death. From there, the perspective shifts back and forth between third- and first-person, interspersing scenes of middle-school Emily working through her initial doubts as a young Witness with insight into her fractured adult self.
The structure works well. The younger Emily’s passages are prosaic; she observes and mimics the rituals of her parents and the religious elders. She never judges, only watches as close relatives come into conflict with the church’s rigid rules: her mother struggles to bury a past in the theatre and her favourite uncle is excommunicated for being gay.
The trigger that launches Emily into a subjective, uncertain adult reality (in which LoveGrove employs all the stylistic techniques she honed in her first two poetry collections) is the realization, precipitated by Lenora’s death, that the same rituals that formed her early identity are also responsible for destroying her family. The Lenora subplot alludes to interesting parallels between religion and organized rebellions against it: the JoHos are an easy target, but LoveGrove’s object of critique is any system – religious or otherwise – that requires literal adherence to a set of rules.
The book’s alternating perspectives create an internal dynamic that makes Emily, a character with little plot of her own, seem interesting, but LoveGrove’s decision to end Emily’s quest in an overly dramatic way seems contrived. Overall, however, Watch How We Walk provides a wonderfully detailed look into a culture that remains secluded from society at large.