I discovered ‘Glaciers’ by Alexis Smith through the Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review of it. Something about the book and Caroline’s description of the Tin House edition made me want to read the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘Glaciers’ follows one day in the life of Isabel. Isabel lives in Portland, Oregon. She works in a library and repairs old books. She lives a quiet, contented life. She takes pleasure in the small, simple things – shopping for a nice secondhand dress which is atleast a few decades old, buying an old vintage postcard or photograph, wrapping her hands around a hot cup of tea and sipping her tea slowly, making gentle conversations with office friends, eating lunch alone at a quiet vegetarian restaurant. After a few pages we fall in love with Isabel. Isabel also likes one of her office co-workers, Spoke. He, of course, doesn’t know it, because he seems to be equally introverted like Isabel. They have quiet, brief conversations in the morning at the cafeteria in the office, before others arrive. On this particular day, the story moves between the present and the past – we learn about Isabel’s childhood in Alaska, about what happened to her parents and how she moved to Portland, about her aunt and uncle (the Astrologer and the Carpenter) who treat Isabel and her sister like grownups but who are also kind to them, about the glaciers melting, about how Isabel’s fascination with old photos and postcards (‘ephemera’) started. The present day story continues with Isabel getting ready to go to work, her quiet conversation with Spoke, her accidental lunch with Spoke, her wanting to invite him to a party in the evening. How Isabel’s past and present entwine and whether she is able to declare her love to Spoke and what happens to them, form the rest of the story.
‘Glaciers’ is a book to be read slowly. After the first few pages I totally fell in love with Isabel. Alexis Smith uses simple prose to paint soft, gentle, beautiful scenes in very page. I was angry and annoyed for some reason while reading the book and the book soothed and calmed me and made my heart glow with pleasure. It was really therapeutic. There were beautiful scenes painted in every page. Like this :
She cups her tea in both hands, fingers wrapping around the cup and meeting on the other side.
And this :
The summer light was fading and there was a lightness in the air, so that voices seemed to float in the window several seconds after they were spoken.
And this :
The brevity of the postcard – the intense focus on the moment in the park – it was as intimate as a young man could be. Like reaching out and brushing a strand of hair from her eyes.
And this :
Isabel found herself staring into her box at her belongings, noticing how different they looked, like they had suddenly lost the context of her life.
And this :
Everything they’ve never said flows into the narrow space between them.
And this :
She stirs, puts the hot spoon into her mouth, the metal and sweetness burning her tongue.
And this :
The crows woke her, in the trees outside; they slipped into that place between dreaming and waking.
And this, one of my favourite conversations in the book :
There are treasures everywhere, her father told her.
What kind of treasures? she asked.
All kinds. Like this, he said, grinning, holding up a record…
Oh, Isabel said, unsure if this was actually proof.
Belly, he said, putting the record down on his stack and squatting next to her, it’s a treasure if you love it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, or whether anyone else wants it. If you love it, you will treasure it, does that make sense?
The book is worth reading for these beautiful images and scenes alone. It also tells the story of a gentle soul.
There are interesting literary references in the book – I could spot James Baldwin, Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Samuel Delaney, Virginia Woolf. I am sure that if I looked more closely, there will be more. I don’t know whether this is true, but the book also seems to pay homage to James Joyce with the absence of punctuation marks and the circular nature of the ending. Clearly Alexis Smith is well read and has a sophisticated, fine literary mind.
As the story is set in Portland, one of my favourite cities where one of my favourite friends is from, I thought there will be something about the city in the book. Maybe a mention of Laurelhurst pub or the Rose garden or the Portland State University. Unfortunately, there was not much of the city in the book. I remember seeing a mention of the Columbia river gorge though.
The Tin House edition of the book that I read is beautifully produced. My favourite parts of the cover were the back cover and the inside flap at the back. When we look at the back cover, it looks like a torn paper is on top of the actual cover. It also looks like the book has got wet at some point – maybe because someone carried it out while it was raining – and those water stains are there on the back cover. I know these stains by experience because some of my books which got wet have stains like this. It took me a while to realize that these stains were not real but they were the magic of the artist. Also, when I looked at the inside back flap, the torn part looked very real and I had to pinch myself and check the picture again to assure myself that it was the artist’s magic. Simple artwork, but very beautiful.
‘Glaciers’ is a wonderful debut novel. I loved it. It is a book that I will keep dipping back into again and again to savour the beautiful, gentle images. I can’t wait to find out what Alexis Smith comes up with next.
Have you read Alexis Smith’s ‘Glaciers’? What do you think about it?