Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fiction | Collecting Memories from a Thrift-Shop Bin

“It's a strange product of infatuation, she thinks. To want to tell someone about mundane things. The awareness of another person suddenly sharpens your senses, so that the little things come into focus and the world seems more beautiful and complicated.”

That's essentially what Alexis M. Smith does in her short debut novel, Glaciers—it's a collection of the small but monumental pieces that build the life of 20-something Isabel. Our protagonist is the quiet type, living in Portland, working at the library preserving materials. She seems to live behind-the-scenes, rather than center stage, and collects small trinkets and relics that become parts of herself. A thrift-shop dress holds the anticipation of a new relationship; a trip to visit her aunt resides in an old garnet ring. Isabel assigns her thoughts, feelings, and memories to material items, and through these treasures, Isabel organizes and experiences the world.

Glaciers, in its brevity, follows one actual day in Isabel's life as she goes to work, shops for a dress, shares lunch with a coworker, chats with her best friend, and attends an evening party. It's brief in action, but Smith fills the pages with observations and reminiscences that keep Isabel's day busy, a constant hum of activity.

For some, this is the kind of book that will be filled with underlines to note poetic combinations of words. Passages like:

“It’s never the wedding dresses, you know. We keep those, too, but only because they’re so blooming expensive. No. I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses. It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.”

That's what you should read this book for—how words can capture moments, and how these little snippets of time can echo impassioned emotion. It does these things well, but its short length and fragmented tone don't inspire much affection or compassion for the main character. And the average cynic may even find it all a bit twee. I really loved Smith's purpose with this short novel, and how Isabel gave physicality to her feelings and moments so she could always hold onto them; I just wish the overall writing style felt a bit more natural.

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