Glaciers by Alexis M Smith
I couldn’t resist the cover of this short novel the moment I spotted it, and felt it – you can’t see the embossing of figure, her bicycle and the title. There’s a sunny hopeful quality to the cover, and it matches the story perfectly. This debut novel is short with just 174 pages and text surrounded by plenty of white space, but it is perfectly formed for reading in one sitting as I did.
Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a young woman who works as a book repairer and restorer at a library in Portland Oregon. She lives alone with her cat, and dreams of travel to explore the great cities of Europe, and remembers her childhood in Alaska. Her story begins thus:
Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.
As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Eliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.
She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.
Finding out Isabel’s story through those memories that surface alongside new thoughts as she goes about her daily life, we build up a picture of her over the events of just one day.
She thinks about her family, her sister Agnes, the break-up of her mother and father, and her aunt who inspired her love of vintage clothes and retro ephemera, and she dreams of those far-off cities viewed through old postcards and found photographs of unknown vacationers.
She muses about her friends, including Leo, who writes his name alongside the ‘gayest of passages‘ in library books when by accident she finds one of them in a book sent for repair as a page falls out.
She wonders whether Spoke, the former soldier who now fixes their computers, will notice her. Can she pluck up the courage to ask him to the party she’s going to this evening?
She wants a new vintage dress for the party. Will it be possible to find the perfect one during her lunch hour?
Reading this dreamy yet clear and delicate prose, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another short novel whose events are fixed in the thoughts of a young woman as she walks through Rome to go to a concert. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (my review here) perfectly captured the butterfly nature of the woman’s train of thoughts, flitting from memories to visual stimuli to questioning the world she’s in, and other thoughts, travelling back and forth between them.
This is the case too in Glaciers, and it also shares many of the qualities of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, with its elements of living in northern climes, getting through loneliness, and the strong local community. There is a purity to it that really allows us to get to know and like Isabel, whose life is filled with longing. Underlying the gentle nature of Isabel’s life and work though, is a serious point about losing people – through break-ups, to working far away, to death, and especially to war. Smith has written a great blog post, with suggested reading on this topic and books that influenced the writing of this novel here.
This bittersweet little novel is a gem that will stay with me for a long time. (10/10)
See also Jane/Fleur Fisher’s review here
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Glaciers by Alexis M Smith, pub July 2013, Oneworld paperback, 174 pages.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.