‘In the car, I decided to try her out for size. I needed to know how much like Ada she could be.’

Ali Millar is one of Scotland’s most exciting new voices, and her unsettling debut novel, Ava Anna Ada, looks set to be a literary highlight of 2024.


Ava Anna Ada
By Ali Millar
Published by White Rabbit



In the car, I decided to try her out for size. I needed to know how much like Ada she could be. 

I told her I couldn’t face the vet on my own. She smiled at me as she hopped into the car and sat where Ada had. Ada always sat straight-backed; she did too. I tried to stop glancing across at her as I drove. I fixed my eyes on the road. 

It is unfortunate that not everyone breathes the same. Ada had this soft, low way of doing it. So low that sometimes I would worry she’d stopped, even when she was awake next to me. I spent years making my hearing sharper, telling it to work harder, the way you have to when they’re babies; I tuned into her breath and then, at the end, it changed. It became a ragged, animal thing, a thing she could not properly take. I would hear her struggle for it, and her voice, her beautiful voice, started to come out wrong. Then she was no longer my Ada, not really, just as this Ava was also not my Ada. Ava’s breath was another thing. It was loud. It filled the car up until it became a presence of its own, condemning my stupidity. Possibly she had a cold, or hay fever, or her adenoids needed attention. Whatever it was that was wrong with her, it meant her breathing didn’t match Ada’s the way I needed it to. 

I put the radio on, flicked it to a classical station, hoping to block it out. 

For a while I couldn’t hear her breathe over the music. When she asked me a question and I took my eyes from the road to glance back at her; she was still all wrong. Something about the arrangement of her was off. Her legs were too long. She was too high up in the seat. I thought about stopping the car. Was it possible that I could pull over and tell her to get out? There was nothing plausible I could think of to say. She needed to be shorter – only an inch or two. I like things to be right. It was vital to be precise about this recreation. 

Make yourself comfortable, I said to her, hoping she would slide down in the seat. But she didn’t. Instead, she leant forwards to the footwell, untied her laces and took her shoes off. 

I tried not to look at her then. The car began to smell like pondwater. 

She came back up with the brown paper bag in her hands. This keeps rattling, she said. Are you sure it’s OK down there? I kept my eyes on the road. It’s fine, yes, I said. She dropped the bag. Not taking care to place it down gently, she just let it fall from her hands. 

I didn’t look at her, but I could still see the blur of her movements. I could smell the damp of her socks mingling with the wet-dog smell coming from the back. She smelt of grass, mud and fresh sweat. Almost sweet; certainly alien. She was a thing that belonged outside, not in here. 

At the end, Ada hardly smelt. She stopped sweating in the last year as her body receded back into childhood. As her face hollowed around the skull below, I had the strangest sensation she was becoming simultaneously younger and older. For days, she’d smell of pear drops, the faint acetone on her breath. The first time I smelt it I asked if she’d been eating sweeties, not thinking, and she fixed me with her rounding eyes, knowing the fool her mother was. It was the doctor who told me this was the smell of ketones; with nothing else to feed on, her body was eating itself. 

I thought: I will need to get some of those sweets for Ava. She might like them. So many things I’d made myself block out; so many things Ava was making me remember. 

Ava lifted her legs, put them and her damp socks on the cream leather seat, flopped them to the side and crossed them at the ankle. She stared out of the window to where The Watchers were. She asked about The Wave. I told her no, I didn’t think it would come. She stared out of the window again. I took something from my right pocket. Slid it out, felt the soft rounded edges of it with my thumb before putting it in my mouth. Ava reached under her coat and began to scratch at the top of her shoulder. I could see her hand there, moving around, but I was done with her then. I swallowed, soon forgot about her breathing as the soft blanketing waves of nothingness I’d craved all morning engulfed me. 

I turned the radio off and just drove. 


Ava Anna Ada by Ali Millar is published by White Rabbit, priced £18.99.

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