Book Review: Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace explores that most universal question: “How do I go on, when they do not?”

One day, while waiting for her roommate’s new IKEA sofa to arrive, Helen Moran receives the news that her adopted brother has committed suicide. She orders a black turtleneck to wear to the funeral, leaves a message for her boss, and books a one-way flight back to Milwaukee. But her adoptive parents are surprised to see her, and no one seems to appreciate her investigation into his death.

The debut novel from Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace follows Helen as she explores the circumstances that surrounded her brother’s suicide, a tragedy that no one seemed to see coming. Erratic and unusual in her behaviour, Helen’s narrative is infused with dark humour, insightful commentary, and grief over her loss.

At odds with her traditional family and the quiet suburban neighbourhood she once called home, Helen’s investigation often proves too much for her fellow mourners to bear. Alternately relatable and alienating, Helen is an outsider, voluntarily absent from her family’s life for many years, with an outlook on life often so bizarre that even the quirky underground art scene she was once part of began to distance themselves from her. Currently under investigation at her job working with disadvantaged and at-risk youths, Helen makes everything about her, preceding conversations that should be about her brother with unrelated stories about herself.

And it’s frustrating, but that seems to be the point. Because try as she might, Helen’s derisive snorts over the gentle behaviour of her family’s grief counsellor, her discomfort over her father finally breaking down, her habit of reducing people to tears by listing reasons why a person might commit suicide… none of it prevents the reader from seeing the grief of her quiet, church-going family and former neighbours, nor does it save her from her own pain.

There’s a particularly poignant moment when Helen remembers taking her brother to a local, and rather sad looking, zoo when he visited her in Manhattan. If she’d have known it would be the last time she would see him, she’d have taken him to the famous Central Park Zoo instead, and the regret over that briefly consumes her.

It’s a powerful moment for Helen and one that makes her seem… well, in a way, normal. That, for me, is where this book really shines, acknowledging that what is normal and seemingly banal is not inherently wrong, lacking in value, or narrow-minded – no matter what Helen might think. In real life, we’re taught that uniqueness is important, and it is – always be yourself! But Helen’s uniqueness costs her a relationship with her a family, any sort of goodbye to her brother, and it may end up costing her her job. And it’s not just because Helen is different, but because she’s infuriating, tactless, selfish, and unwilling to accept or explore other points of view.

But what’s really at the heart of this novel is the idea of carrying on, of dealing with trauma and moving on. Through Helen, her family, the people around them, and even through the departed brother, Cottrell captures a plethora of different coping mechanisms, from sharing stories to escaping to the movies to the waterfall method alluded to on the front cover of the book. And at the centre of it all is a death that turns out to be more logical and measured than any of the responses to it could possibly be, and serving to beautifully highlight the range of emotions, mindsets, and characteristics that make up the people that thought they knew Helen’s brother best.

Told through the eyes of Helen, it would be easy to lose everyone else – her brother included – in the novel, one which follows an almost stream of consciousness like pattern. But Patty Yumi Cottrell has instead turned her debut into an exploration of the universal helplessness that follows any passing, asking that age old question “How do I go on, when they do not?”.

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is available now from Text Publishing / McSweeney’s.