Jane F. Kotapish’s debut novel is an often beautiful, occasionally terrifying account of an unnamed woman’s attempt to come to terms with various ghosts from her childhood. But though this premise may set off alarm bells of moody self-absorption—a notion that isn’t helped by an opening line like “I named my dead sister Nancy and talked to her in the privacy of my closet for eleven years,” and chapter headings that sound like the names of melodramatic perfumes (“Seep”, “Crave”, “Incise”)—Kotapish gives her characters a warmth and depth that raise the narrative well above cliché.
Salvage doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of plot, instead choosing to lead the reader on a whirlwind tour of the narrator’s disjointed psyche. Most scenes last only a page or two, and cover everything from blissful adolescent afternoons at the neighbourhood swimming pool to present-day eccentricity and borderline alcoholism. The only things we see clearly are a tangled relationship with her mother, Lois (who has recently taken to conversing with dead saints), and a genuinely traumatic incident involving a New York City subway car. Other than that, everything is up for grabs.
One of the novel’s major strengths is its depiction of the alternating intimacy and distance between parents and their children. At times the narrator seems to relish memories of her childhood independence, but she also remembers feeling sudden pangs of jealousy while sleeping over at a friend’s house: “Mothers and daughters needed each other, and wept into each other’s hair. Perhaps on a nightly basis. The house did not dissolve in chaos, but stood solidly around them as they hugged and rocked, hushing the tiny crisis into silence.”
With such an intricate and overlapping structure to manage, it comes as no surprise that some scenes in Salvage work better than others. Occasionally, Kotapish’s minimalist prose lapses into outright confusion, but when she is on the mark, as she is for the vast majority of the novel, stereotypes are destroyed and ghosts exorcised.
McClelland & Stewart, 304 pp, $32.99, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, April 24, 2008)