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March 27, 2008

Salvage by Jane F. Kotapish

Convention is insufficient with which to discuss Jane F. Kotapish’s first novel Salvage. I could try to think of analogous works– This Novel meets That Novel, say– but an appropriate hybrid refuses to be imagined. I could stick with plot, but really, which one would I choose? Centrally, this is the story of one woman’s tenuous grasp upon reality after experiencing a traumatic event. Or, this is the story of a woman who spent her childhood speaking to her dead sister in a closet. Or, here is the story of one house, and the story of another. An exploration of mother/daughter relationships utterly unreliant upon precedent. About what happens when maybe-actual saints start appearing in one’s back garden. Each thread a bit of the story here, but each one singularly giving readers the wrong impression.

Perhaps I can get to the point by explaining that I read this book over two days, finished it last evening, and only just now realized that the narrator/protagonist goes unnamed. It is significant, I think, that such a detail could be so unremarkable. Also significant, that indeed in this book, the protagonist speaks to her dead sister in a closet– a detail that might have tripped up my reading in the hands of a lesser writer, but the rest of the story carried me right through this. Or that this story of a communication breakdown between mother in daughter, its origins in childhood trauma, could be so invested with pure love. That love can ever be so aching.

I have selected these details to demonstrate Kotapish’s firm control of her narrative, everything exactly as it should be, nothing as you’d think it is. The narrator lacking a name, but I don’t even notice, so sure is her voice, so essential are the details with which we’re provided. Which are that this woman has witnessed something traumatic, something so awful that it’s torn her right out of her life, and she’s returned home again, purchasing a house not far from where her mother lives. Such familiar ground, however, reawakening troubling childhood obsessions, and this woman must navigate the narrow ground between her demons as she edges towards recovery.

But all this might give the wrong idea still, for Salvage is terribly funny. Darkly funny, naturally, but ultimately this is an uplifting book, caustic and ironic throughout. Its disparate plot threads and various tones all contained by a brilliant use of language, of imagery, both of which are surprising and edgy. Lines like, “The only reason I can recollect my father’s face at all is because I saw it catch fire in our back yard when I was three.” Lines like every other line as well, and the dialogue, which maps relationships’ whole histories. All recounted in the same even tone, a curious perception, both of which are the effects of damage, of trauma undeniably, but are no less for this, casting the ordinary world in a light entirely new.

It is this same even tone, this perception, which keep the trauma from seizing the narrative. Preventing sensation from taking over, from spiraling out of control. Kotapish’s language keeps her narrative in line– the perfect container. The scene in which the woman recounts the event that drove her towards breakdown manages to be so beautiful and awful, a horror perfectly choreographed– a memory after all.

Salvage is an astounding first novel, challenging the bounds of a novel’s capabilities, demonstrating the startling complexity of emotion. Language employed with the utmost exactitude, bending reality in fascinating ways.

2 thoughts on “Salvage by Jane F. Kotapish”

  1. metro mama says:

    I have to make time to read this one!

  2. Kerry says:

    I’m glad you think so, and hope you find it as rich and interesting as I did.

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