Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

By Alexis M. Smith 
Tin House Books. 174 pp. $10.95

In the age of e-books, certain books demand to be read as physical books, simply because of their design. Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, beautifully published by Tin House, is one such book. In this case, the design fully supports the prose. Smith’s prose is sparse and lyrical, and the short lines (about nine words) and short pages (about nineteen lines) reflect this. In my opinion, even if an e-reader were set to display the book as printed, possible extra space, on the sides or at the bottom, would change the reading experience. As a paperback original, the physical book is only about two dollars more than the e-book. In this case, I urge you to buy the physical book. (See a sample page at the bottom of this post.)

Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a twenty-something living in Portland, Oregon. Isabel works as a librarian restoring old books, loves old things and secondhand stores, and pines after the library’s new IT guy, a recently-returned Iraq War veteran.  The story follows her through a single day of her life, with brief flashbacks to her childhood.

The “glaciers” of the title refer to glaciers in Alaska, where Isabel was raised until her parents’ divorce took her away. Early in the novel, Smith has Isabel imagining a scene that she was too young to have witnessed: her parents traveling from Seattle to Alaska, via ferry, and the glaciers they might have seen. “Like other great creature before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed.”

Despite the loss that the title evokes as a result of this section, Glaciers is not a story of loss. It is much more a story of finding. The novel opens with Isabel finding an old postcard in “her favorite junk store” to add to her collection. She is surprised to find that the postcard actually has a message and imagines a story to fit the message. A bit later, she finds a vintage dress for friend’s party. Later still, she finds the courage to finally make herself vulnerable to her crush. Loss does come, but it is not a crippling loss. It is certainly not as large as a death, like the glaciers.

And that is the major flaw of the novel: the connection of the glaciers—of Alaska—to the spotlighted day. Isabel’s Alaskan childhood does not seem to inform her present, at least not enough. She had left Alaska when she was only ten, after her parents’ divorce.  Although there are flashbacks, including one that shows the origins of her love of old things, it’s just not enough. Even a beautiful memory of one of Isabel’s last days in Alaska, where she and her family visit a glacier, fails to show how her Alaskan past reverberates through this one day. Perhaps, if the book was longer or it followed more than one day, this would not be a problem.

And that is another flaw: Glaciers is almost too tight and too short. Still, is also undeniably lovely. What eventually makes it triumphant is Smith’s wonderfully sparse, lyrical prose. Her sentences are short, but never feel staccato. They flow together so well that I found myself reading faster than I wanted to, and missing some beautiful moments. I had to go back and reread certain sections. One day I will reread the entire novel. 

Glaciers is part of Tin House’s “New Voices” series. I was first introduced to the series last year through Powell’s Books excellent book club, Indispensables, and their selection of Katie Arnold Ratliff’s wonderful debut novel, Bright Before Us. Tin House writers might not get the attention of debuts from more major publishers—like Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding—but I look forward to discovering more new voices from Tin House.

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