‘They Say Sarah’ Is a Powerful Debut About a Passionate Love Affair by Pauline Delabroy-Allard

They Say Sarah Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Pauline Delabroy-Allard‘s debut novel, They Say Sarah, explores the passionate relationship between two women. The narrator, a lonely, thirty-something teacher raising a young daughter falls in love with the eponymous Sarah–a passionate, talented violinist prone to capricious shifts in mood and interest. Their intense relationship burns with an almost violent love, an obsessive kind of yearning that could easily turn to hate. Divided into two parts, Delabroy-Allard chronicles the relationship from friendship to passionate affair to heartbreak in lyrical, poignant prose even as the unnamed lover falls deeper and deeper into nightmarish despair.

The novel’s first half is its strongest. Delabroy-Allard describes the relationship’s meteoric rise in all its intensity with concise, vignette-like chapters. Sarah’s hunger-panged desire is an empty stomach that devours everything, from the physical attachment of her relationship with the narrator to food and drink. She is insatiable, and the narrator is completely taken in by her. But Sarah’s larger-than-life personality – consistently prone to excess – leads to a tempestuous relationship that veers from loving, worshipful happiness to explosions of anger and bitterness.

In the novel’s second half, it’s revealed that Sarah has cancer. The narrator is keen to look after her, but Sarah wishes to end their relationship. The descriptive beauty of the first half turns into something slightly scattered and difficult to follow in the second half as the narrator, believing Sarah is dead, flees to Italy. While there, she obsesses over what transpired at the end of her relationship with Sarah, but she becomes increasingly distraught. In her grief, the narrator becomes unreliable, and it’s difficult for the reader to understand what, exactly, happened to Sarah and why the narrator has fallen so deeply into a state of helplessness.

Delabroy-Allard undoubtedly wishes to show two sides of the same coin – the heady rush of new love with the catastrophic consequences of its end. While her prose is consistently beautiful and fresh, the narrative dissonance of the latter half is perplexing. Because the narrative is comprised solely of the narrator’s fraught inner thoughts, the reader is privy only to a disjointed retelling of what occurred.  The novel’s ambiguous ending leaves the reader none the wiser as it leaves us in the nadir of the narrator’s dejection.

While They Say Sarah may not come together as a wholly cohesive unit, it presents us with a commanding new voice in fiction. Delabroy-Allard is undoubtedly possessed of a keen, poetic eye that functions at its best in descriptive, atmospheric prose. They Say Sarah is truly the introduction of an exciting new voice in fiction.

Naoise Dolan’s ‘Exciting Times’ Is Abound With Complex Relationships

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It’s no small wonder that Sally Rooney‘s laconic, crystalline prose would harbinger the introduction of similar writers into the resurrected strains of social realism brought forth by Conversations with Friends and Normal People. The narrative bent of these stories hinges upon the minutiae of interpersonal relationships, which animate the loose, marriage plot-like structure Rooney brilliantly molds into the backbone of her novels. What holds her aloft as the pinnacle of this genre is her consistent ability to render the labyrinthine folds of human relationships within the private and public spheres, showing, in no uncertain terms, that the personal and political are inextricably linked in her characters’ lives.

Naoise Dolan would appear to be Rooney’s immediate successor. The unembellished, incisive, methodical narrative that elevates Rooney’s work as the ultimate uncanny depiction of an educated millennial milieu is mirrored clearly in Dolan’s debut. Exciting Times, which was excerpted in The Stinging Fly literary magazine during Rooney’s tenure as editor, attempts to lay bare the multifarious aspects of precarity that exist between its characters and those characters’ connections to the wider world. Some would suggest Rooney and Dolan tapped into this ever-beleaguered millennial unconscious, which is undoubtedly true to some extent; other writers have manifested the same observations. But seeing as both writers are Irish and avowed Marxists, it seems the road paved by Rooney and traveled by Dolan is far narrower in scope than the wide planes of general discontent, and their aim is far more pointed.

In Dolan’s novel, twenty-two-year-old Ava leaves Ireland to teach English to wealthy children in Hong Kong. From one colonial outpost to the next, the class structures embedded within daily life, professional and social, do not escape her caustic appraisal. She forms a relationship with Julian, a middle-class English banker out of a deep-seated need to engage with these class structures – to manipulate, submit, and endlessly reconstruct the power dynamic between herself and someone who treats her as little more than a source of amusement. When she moves in with Julian, ostensibly to save money, Ava becomes even more entangled in the relationship, which often seems more like an unsolvable geometric proof than a romance.

When Ava meets Edith, a brilliant, forthright lawyer with whom an easy, relatively uncomplicated relationship forms, she is forced to choose between the two. While her relationship with Julian is predictable in its conversational sparring, Edith provides a certain tender comfort that lacks in the former. Yet, Edith’s family would never accept a same-sex relationship, and Ava can’t seem to disentangle herself from Julian.

As Ava weaves an increasingly complicated emotional web around the three, readers must contend with the inevitable frustrations that arise from a character whose calculations are constantly barbed and whose affectations teeter on manipulative. We certainly empathize with the ever-present pitfalls of virtual communication and nod in agreement at her observations about interacting across class boundaries. But it seems, at times, that Ava becomes something of a mouthpiece for Dolan’s political touches rather than a character that successfully embodies said political argument at work. And while Dolan presents three conversational masters in her main characters, only Ava seems incapable of parsing the reasoning behind her motivations. Her meandering indecisiveness, perhaps relatable to some, may cause others to throw their hands up as she fails to truly grasp the nature of her drives.

Dolan’s command of keen observation allows her an impressive amount of adroit maneuvering within the simple narrative structure common to this genre. While some aspects of it fall flat in the hands of an imperfectly imperfect narrator, whose machinations don’t always pass muster, Dolan’s prowess comes through strongly in her observational details and mastery of dialogue – an obvious necessity for the successor of a novelist whose sensational first novel was titled Conversations with Friends. Readers follow along as though floating in a river whose turns are unknown, waiting to see who will gain the upper hand. The unceasing battle never truly seems to end.

Natalie Jenner’s ‘The Jane Austen Society’ Is the Ideal Quarantine Novel

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In the midst of trying times, readers often return to their favorite books for comfort. The current pandemic has prevailed upon many to revisit Jane Austen‘s six great novels, which are widely considered some of the greatest books ever written. But why? Her stories depict the lives of landed gentry in provincial areas of England during the Regency period where the primary objective of young women is to make advantageous marriages. For some people—like a few characters in Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Society—it’s easy to dismiss these novels as simple “romances.” But once readers enter Austen’s world, it’s impossible to see her work as anything less than genius.

In The Jane Austen Society, Jenner brings us to Chawton—a village in Hampshire where Austen spent her final years and completed her last three novels. Her brother, Edward Austen Knight, inherited Chawton House, and Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother, lived in the estate’s steward’s cottage during those years. Jenner’s novel begins just before the start of World War II but follows most of its characters as they navigate the final stretch of the war and its immediate aftermath. Dr. Benjamin Gray, the town doctor; Adeline Lewis Grover, a former schoolteacher; Adam Berwick, farmer; Frances Knight, last direct descendant of the Knight family; Evie Stone, scullery maid; Andrew Forrester, solicitor; Mimi Harrison; film star; and Yardley Sinclair, Sotheby’s appraiser comprise the eponymous society–a motley group of Austen fans determined to preserve the legacy of their favorite author.

As the society bands together, utilizing each member’s skills and resources to reach the ultimate goal of acquiring the Chawton estate steward’s cottage for use as a museum, the power of Austen’s work as a source of comfort and insight into interpersonal relationships allows the members to address their trauma. Through their discussions of Austen’s characters and plot lines, the society’s members learn about themselves, creating the means to continue living in earnest after years of grief. They recognize the author’s clear-eyed vision of life and society as something essential to the village—something that needs to be preserved before it is lost to time and/or callous business dealings.

While the multiple perspectives Jenner’s debut leaves the narrative unbalanced in parts, she imbues her novel with all the warmth and provincial charm of Austen’s stories, providing another refuge for those readers who have read and re-read those six novels during our current state of affairs. Unlike other spin-offs or alternative narratives of Austen’s stories, The Jane Austen Society hinges upon a close reading of the original novels with Jenner threading her story with all the reasons why Austen’s work is timeless and an eternal beacon during times of duress.

Elisabeth Thomas Dazzles With Her Debut Novel ‘Catherine House’

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There’s something about boarding school stories that captivate readers. Many of us were introduced to the genre via Harry Potter, and that allure — those endless forays into the dark recesses of a school concealing both danger and treasure in its depths — keeps us coming back for more.

Elisabeth Thomas’ compelling debut, Catherine House, is no exception to this standard. If anything, the author molded her novel not only out of the boarding school genre but also from the Gothic tradition of writers like Daphne du Maurier, throwing in elements of Isaac Asimov-driven science fiction. The premise of a highly-selective, elite, private college sequestering its students for three years and immersing them in a mysterious curriculum hooks readers from the opening page. As we follow Ines — a young woman running from her past and for whom Catherine House is a fresh start — the secrets of this prestigious institution come to light, and we must wonder if anyone ever really leaves.

In an environment that is equal parts academic rigor and bacchanalian antics, Ines fully commits herself to the latter, seldom attending classes and nearly failing out of Catherine after her first year. The hazy aspects of her potentially criminal past prevent her from fully engaging with anything as she struggles to get ahold of herself and find her footing at the school. She soon comes to learn, however, that almost everyone at Catherine has a reason for wanting to leave the real world behind for the gilded promises of this fantasy school, even if those golden edges appear to be hiding structures full of rot. For some of Ines’ peers, like Theo and her roommate Baby, the allure of “plasm” — a revolutionary substance found in all matter, and a substance for which the school is infamous — brought them in the first place.

When Ines’ first year comes to an end, and plasm is introduced to new students as a strange Pavlovian grooming tool, her fascination and suspicion of the substance begins to take hold, especially when Baby’s obsession with it leads to her untimely death. In her third year, Ines becomes embroiled in the school’s questionable practices relating to plasm studies, and in the end, there are only two choices: stay at Catherine forever or escape.

In her first turn, Thomas delivers an impressive, eerie debut novel where the shimmering prestige of Catherine House masks a macabre underbelly of secrets and tragedy. What should be a path to healing and self-discovery for Ines becomes a sinister pull of forces beyond her control, inching her closer to confusion and doubt. Once readers enter the world of Catherine House, they too won’t be able to leave until the very last page is turned.

Art As Politics and Politics As Crime in Patricio Pron’s ‘Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets’

Don't Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets Book CoverIn Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets, Patricio Pron transports readers to the final months of World War II where, at the Fascist Writers’ Conference in Pinerolo, Italy, a man called Luca Borello is found dead in the dangerous, partisan-held territory surrounding the city. Borello, a member of the Futurist movement and a former fascist, had been estranged from his friends and colleagues for years following the theft of a deceased friend’s work by another Futurist writer several years prior. But, in April 1945, Borello appears as if out of nowhere, intent on righting what he believes to be the ultimate transgression against the Futurist vision of art.

It isn’t until the late 1970s when a university student named Peter Linden takes interest in the goings-on of this fateful conference that the details surrounding Borello’s death – an event intertwined with the history of Linden’s own family – fall into place. The narrative, comprised largely of interviews Linden conducts with the four writers closest to Borello in his youth, recounts the conference and its players while also capturing the frenetic, violent, masculine energy of Futurism in its heyday. With their retelling of events, Pron masterfully explores the Futurist movement and its indelible link to fascism. At the conference, fascist writers from across Europe convene to discuss, in an increasingly futile manner, the tenets and goals of fascism, even as the Axis powers – the representative force of these fascist philosophies – is on its knees.

How art became politics and politics became crime is the heart of Pron’s novel, best represented by these men searching for artistic purity through violent means – art turned into action. As they recall the events surrounding Borello’s death two decades later, the sputtering flame of youthful conviction allows this group of aging artists to examine what they once believed to be true about their art and its aims. In the stark aftermath of the war, where the philosophies of the Futurists and their ilk are wretched, one writer posits the following:

…Our idea, I now think, was an aesthetic utopia, and those utopias should never transcend the realm of books, maybe they shouldn’t have ever even left the heads of their authors.

-Excerpt from Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets

And what comes of nations, people, and movements – the members of which are never fully in agreement about anything – forging political landscapes out of “aesthetic utopias”? This striving for artistic purity, as it is transposed onto life, breeds violence – where those who see it will rip the fabric of reality, ultimately tearing flesh to fit the mold of its vision.

In 1945, after the theft of the work Borello was meant to safeguard, Borello retreats into himself and comes to the realization that literature cannot be used as a political tool successfully. To attempt as much is to degrade the principles of Futurist art. This is why he attends the conference after years of isolation. His attempts to convince the other writers of this belief goes unheeded, but his eventual death, according to one of the writers, signified “the end of the idea of fascist literature, or, at least, the end of the idea that it could somehow help governments that could no longer help themselves and had given up trying.”

Peter Linden, the radically left-wing student who questions these writers, must confront the “schisms [their] story has provoked in his life and ideas,” which, ” divorces a certain idea of justice from the conviction that justice can actually be carried out by individuals or even [an] organization.” The story presented to him insists that our deepest held convictions are never as diametrically opposed to those of our foes as we like to believe.

Linden’s father, Francesco, a leftist partisan fighter during the war, confronts the same questions in the months leading up to the Fascist Writer’s Conference when he is saved by Borello who has been living in relative isolation nearby. The section of the novel that concerns the interaction between Francesco and Borello – two men in doubt about the methods of the organizations and movements with which they’ve aligned themselves, movements they once believed to be fundamentally pure and true – shows the gnawing sense of dread that comes with betrayal and the sudden imperative for a reappraisal of moral code, since what was once clearly defined is no longer so and, perhaps, never was.

The uneasy friendship between Linden and Borello is the most riveting part of Pron’s narrative, one where readers are offered a reprieve from the fascist writers and their remembrances. Here, readers no longer have to wade through ideas of theoretical purity but can instead witness purity in practice – a beautifully rendered scene in which two men realize their sense of self and humanity through compassion.

This paves the way for the novel’s final section, which reveals the narrative to be, in part, a generational exploration of affliction. We meet Linden’s son Tomasso, or T., who represents the outcome of his patriarchs’ track record of trying to align themselves with organizations meant to rectify the wrongs of government, “all of whom have had to compare their convictions to the results of their actions.” The three men are “linked by…an uncomfortable awareness of history and the place of individuals,” and T. becomes, perhaps more than anyone else in the novel, the one who sees that the systems in which we live are simply a “replacement ceremony” where generations will continuously become those they despise.

Pron’s novel is a tapestry of styles woven together perfectly to create a novel of unexpected force, one that probes beyond monolithic alliances and shifting moral structures. And like so many Latin American writers, Pron gets to the core of political dysfunction with his own brand of narrative ingenuity. The result is simultaneously unnerving and captivating.

Carmen Boullosa’s ‘The Book of Anna’ Is a Masterpiece of Metafiction

The Book of Anna Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Carmen Boullosa‘s latest novel, The Book of Anna, threads characters from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece into an innovative narrative caper that blends history, fiction, and fairytale. In the tradition of Latin American writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clarice Lispector, Boullosa pushes the boundaries of fiction in a novel that tackles the nature of fiction itself, from the chasm of authorial intent to the presentation of fictitious elements as real objects. The result is an unexpected delight – an oddity that moves within its paces so brilliantly, readers will take each strange turn of events as it comes, knowing Boullosa will lead them to a space of literary transcendence.

In Boullosa’s continuation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s son Sergei must decide whether or not to sell a portrait of his mother to Tsar Nicholas II for display in the Hermitage. His wife, Claudia, is thrilled at the prospect, but Sergei can’t shake the fact that he is Tolstoy’s creation, one who, as much as he tries, cannot escape the shadow of his mother’s shame or that of the author’s legacy. Meanwhile, several servants in the Karenin household have aligned themselves with the movement of Father Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who organizes a march comprised of laborers and peasants and plans to protest on the grounds of the Winter Palace despite knowing the Tsar will inflict violence on anyone involved. His duplicity and hubris set the stage for a series of events that careen through Tolstoy’s world, Boullosa’s world, the history of revolutionary Russia, and several combinations of each.

As the protest in St. Petersburg comes to a tragic end, Sergei and Claudia are preparing the portrait of Anna Karenina. Sergei wishes to leverage the tsar’s offer into a lucrative position away from St. Petersburg where he can be free of Anna Karenina’s legacy and Tolstoy’s machinations – a place where he can, ideally, forge a self that belongs to him alone, one that exists in the world outside of fiction. Claudia balks at the idea of leaving the city behind and hopes to give the money to Sergei’s sister Anya. As they continue to debate each other and an angry, dream-world Tolstoy, Claudia discovers a box in her attic containing two manuscripts by Anna Karenina: the first, a morality story for children that was lauded by a publisher in her lifetime, and the second, a rewrite of the same story that turns out to be a kaleidoscopic feminist fairy tale written under the influence of opium.

This manuscript, the long lost “Book of Anna,” reveals a woman torn between worlds and how to be. The highly wrought constructed “self” morphs over the course of the fable and ends with something that resembles happiness. A much better fate, readers will agree, than Tolstoy’s Anna. But, in a cruel turn of events, as the revolution chugs forward (not unlike another fateful train, if you’ll excuse the easy parallel), an anarchist called Clementine and the distraught brother of a servant killed in the protest march plant a bomb in the car carrying Anna Karenina’s portrait and her manuscripts to the Winter Palace. All of her selves are destroyed in one instant.

The sheer innovation of Boullosa’s multi-layered narrative presents the reader with a nesting doll of fictions and histories – threads that intertwine questions of self-hood, artistic creation, and the many-layered voices of political change. The Book of Anna marks the rare achievement of a writer who balances the weight of Tolstoy’s complicated genius with her own interpretation of events, real and fictitious, with unmitigated brio and a touch of mischievous whimsy. It will surely become a modern classic.

Maureen Johnson’s ‘Truly Devious’ Series Goes Out with a Bang in ‘The Hand on the Wall’

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The ‘Truly Devious’ series goes out with a bang in its final installment. The intrepid Stevie Bell makes it back to Ellingham Academy after a series of tragedies disrupt the school’s idyllic environment. She knows who committed the crime of the century, as the original Ellingham kidnapping/murders came to be known. But, now, she must piece together the present-day murders. Are they connected to the original killings? Are they even connected to each other?  In The Hand on the Wall, a page-turner from start to finish, Maureen Johnson provides those who have followed the mysteries of Ellingham Academy from the beginning with a satisfying conclusion.

Stevie’s deal with the villainous Edward King – a Senator cut from the Donald Trump mold – damages her budding romantic relationship with King’s secret problem child, David. After getting himself beaten up on purpose at the end of The Vanishing Stair, David is missing and, on top of that, Stevie’s advisor has been killed in a house fire. The uncertainty of the school’s future after these tragic deaths, combined with Stevie’s personal problems and academic demands, provide an anxiety-driven sprint to the finish as pieces of the puzzle start coming together in unexpected and chilling ways.

As with the two previous installments, Johnson alternates between perspectives told from the players of the original Ellingham affair and Stevie’s efforts in the present. The link between past and present becomes clearer as time passes, and the mysteries of the school continue to reveal themselves. Stevie’s advisor was convinced Albert Ellingham made a codicil in his will stipulating that any individual who discovers the whereabouts of his daughter, Alice, and returns her, alive or dead, will receive millions of dollars. If such a codicil exists, Stevie wonders, are the present-day murders motivated by the same entity that spurred the original crimes? Money makes a monster of us all, and it seems there are those who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

While this novel and its predecessor, The Vanishing Stair, suffer a little from the sophomore slump destined to plague most sequels, the entire series is a satisfying whodunit for young adults. Rereading the first two installments would be ideal before plunging into the final book, but Johnson’s unflagging ability to engross readers with her suspense-filled prose and character-driven narratives shines through in this ending – a perfect way to spend a few hours in the dead of winter.

Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

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Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Memoir ‘Rust’ Is a Poignant Debut

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Eliese Colette Goldbach has lived every dreamer’s nightmare. In her book-length debut Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Goldbach details how the recession and her struggle with bipolar disorder effectively precludes her from securing meaningful employment post-university. Through the overarching framework of her working life at the mill, Goldbach’s memoir describes a downward trajectory of disappointment. The largely halcyon days of her childhood – distinguished by ambition, promise, and a naïve, unguarded piety – give way to years of self-doubt and loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. Most strikingly, her account of working in a massive steel mill encapsulates the dark side of a certain fantasy peddled to millennials since their youngest days in elementary school: if you get a college degree, you are guaranteed work. Like many others in her position, Goldbach finds that the combination of a liberal arts degree, an economic recession, and a severe illness do not lead to the image of success imparted upon us by working-class parents.

When relating her early memories as a child growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, Goldbach describes what I imagine is the near-universal desire among young girls in the Church to become nuns. The obsessive, fearful need for goodness, combined with the competitive nature of a younger sibling trying to out-do an older sibling in everything, imbues the author with what she comes to describe as a hunger for the extraordinary. As with most strict religious upbringings, and a future weighed down by expectation, Goldbach’s later years are marred by disillusionment followed by the need for course correction. She finds that the institutions she once believed represented justice, morality, and compassion are not so when difficulties arise in her life, namely her battle with bipolar disorder and a sexual assault during her college years.

The mill provides Goldbach with financial stability as a union laborer. And while her illness continues to cast a shadow over her personal life during these years, she finds herself part of a community among her fellow workers. By extension, she finds a new identity underneath the auspices of Cleveland’s famed grit – a place where the backbone of America’s infrastructure is born. Steelwork is known for its hazards, and Goldbach makes a point of comparing the steelmaking process with hellfire. The extremity of the work – along with the “snitches get stitches” attitude of her fellow workers – requires a new level of toughness, or else, a newbie will get chewed up and spit out by the mill. This rough-and-tumble education belies everything she thought she knew about the blue-collar industry in her hometown. Goldbach writes:

I heard about it from pundits and economics professors, and I’d come to believe that the Rust Belt was the collection of tidy metaphors that everyone else wanted it to be.

-excerpt from Rust

Goldbach’s personal experiences during this time of young adulthood provide a poignant, relatable reading experience for those who have been negatively affected by the post-recession economy, for those who have struggled with an incapacitating illness, or for those teetering with the religious values of one’s youth.

But, in the same vein as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other post-election literature, the strongest components of Goldbach’s memoir rest on keen observations of life at the steel mill, specifically as a woman in a largely male environment; how the identity of laborers is consistently exploited by politicians; and the myriad ways households are divided by hyperbolic political rhetoric. In a characteristically Biblical description, she describes the “rift” between Americans as something that “had been borne from a particularly human failing.” Goldbach writes:

 We had forgotten how to see each other. We had let our guard down. We had closed our eyes. Now the weavers of shrouds and fantasies had come along recognizing our self-imposed darkness. They believed that we were too blind to know better, so they covered our eyes carefully, hoping that none of us—both steelworkers and lawyers alike—would ever see clearly again.

-excerpt from Rust

Unfortunately, Goldbach fails to delve into the nitty-gritty of the economic disillusionment and pure rage that changed the tide of our 2016 election, which would likely uncover a slightly more nuanced portrait of this oft exploited demographic. Human failing certainly plays a role, but decades of poor economic policy and plain old political opportunism likely play a larger one.

As a whole, Rust is a moving portrait of Goldbach’s formative years, with gems of societal observation strewn throughout the narrative. Its shortcomings, which stem from too many narrative threads vying for center stage throughout the book, are mitigated by the author’s clear talent for observational storytelling.

On “The Need” by Helen Phillips

the need2019 ended on a strange note with a reading of Helen Phillips’ widely acclaimed second novel, The Need. In this heady blend of domestic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Phillips creates an atmospheric narrative that begins with a mother sensing the presence of an intruder in her home. In her fear, Molly, our narrator, operates solely on instinct in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to protect her two young children from such a violation.

Phillips’ strongest efforts in this novel can be attributed to her clever layering of a complex narrative timeline. Molly’s work as a paleobotanist brings her into contact with an excavation site known as “the Pit,” where, prior to the events of the novel, she discovers several everyday items with strange variations in their composition: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola can with the font shifted the opposite way; and a Bible that references God as “she.” Each is harmless, but something about these differences lends the objects an uncanny, otherworldly quality. The latter object in particular makes a splash in local papers, leading to a rapid increase in tourists to the Pit–some of whom do no take kindly to this new edition of the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Phillips introduces another threat of violence to the narrative, infusing the skewed world of the novel with dread.

As Molly confronts the prospect of an intruder in her home, the narrative cuts back to her time at the Pit and the significance of these small objects. When the plot pushes forward to Molly coming into contact with the intruder–an excellent buildup of suspense from Phillips–we find that this interloper is none other than Molly herself. “Moll”, as this variant of Molly comes to call herself, is a version of our narrator from a different reality–one of an infinite number of realities in which a tourist viewing the discovered Bible detonates a bomb, killing Molly’s children. In her grief, Moll finds her way to Molly via the Pit–a seam in the fabric of the universe that allows the alternate realities to come into contact with each other.

Moll demands access to the children, forcing Molly into an arrangement in which the two share care-giving duties. The threat of violence, combined with the weight of grief and the physical need to be with the children form this novel’s backbone. Phillips uses Molly’s experiences–and by extension Moll’s experiences–to explore motherhood, from the quotidian grind of caring for small children, who are more creature than human, to the extreme lengths a grieving mother will go to for the sake of those children…or what she will do to avenge their deaths.

Phillips writes with unparalleled beauty and grace about how the instinctive, physical  elements of motherhood–the trappings of nursing combined with the touch and smell of these small lives produced from one’s body–transcend mortal pinions to the realm of some unknowable universe; a higher existence in which infinite realities can take shape from a knowable present.

While Phillips’ prose is not consistently clean in craft, it is often stunningly understated and clear in intent. At just 272 pages, the author shows her ability to expand the short story form for which she is known, successfully executing the same succinct exploration of theme in the extended novel form.

A bit bleak for year’s end, but well worth the time.