(Tin House, 2012)
Isabel is a young thrift-store shopper who developed her love for cast-off curios at the age of four when her father took her junking. From that point on she became smitten, intoxicated by “ephemera” and shards of the past. “She loves the smell of old things,” we are told, when the adult version enters a vintage shop and “quietly inhales.” As a restorer of mistreated or “wounded” books in the basement of a library, Isabel has the ideal job. We follow her through one day of her life in which we are privy to the hopes and loves of her present and the jumbled memories of her childhood.
This absorbing debut from Alexis M. Smith is a study in understatement. The shy, bookish Isabel may not lead the most exciting of lives but Smith compensates by leading the reader into her protagonist’s mind and prioritizing her interior thoughts and emotions over her comparatively scant physical deeds. As the main “event” of her day is preparation for a party in the evening, we acknowledge the nod to Mrs. Dalloway. Smith has admitted Woolf’s influence, and in an interview explained how a writer can profit from, rather than be constrained by, a plot whose action, such as there is, takes place within a tight time frame: “Not much changes in the characters’ lives in the course of a day, so it’s an interesting way to examine memories and how they play in the background of daily life, informing relationships and feeding desires.”
By expanding on both Isabel’s desires and memories, Smith bolsters a tale which could easily have ended up whimsical. Isabel yearns for the affections of Spoke, a co-worker and former soldier. He repairs Isabel’s computer, tells of how he repaired “dumped stuff” with his grandfather, and how in Iraq he acquired the nickname “the fix-it guy.” Isabel, the rescuer of junk and salvager of old books, recognizes a kindred spirit. There is an allusion to the frozen wastes of the book’s title when Spoke looks at her and “she feels a crash inside, pieces of her breaking off and floating away.” Alongside these pent-up feelings, Smith juxtaposes Isabel’s search for a party dress in Portland with scattershot reminiscences about her childhood in Seattle and Alaska. She feels an affinity with the landscape of the north and draws comparisons between both places: “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.”
Isabel lives in the present and recollects the past, but Smith also has her imagine the past, both Isabel’s personal past that she was too young to remember, and the pasts of the original owners of the second hand bric-a-brac she now possesses. In one thrift store she finds an Amsterdam postcard dated 1965 with a short inscription of love to the recipient, and her imagination conjures up possible histories: Who was he, who was she, and why were they so far apart? The brevity of the postcard’s message isn’t a hindrance; rather, it affords her greater creative scope. Similarly, when she tries on a dress for the party, she admires herself in the changing-room mirror and in her reflection “can almost see the girl who wore the dress before her.” And in one flashback, an aunt reassures her about ghosts, for they are merely “an echo of someone’s life.” There is a culmination of this in a chapter appropriately entitled “Afterlife,” in which Isabel tries to imagine the ghost of herself and her own fate, and how a likeminded hoarder-collector might visit a thrift store in the future, long after she has died, find her belongings, and stare at her frozen image in “the saturated colors of their family snapshots.”
Glaciers brims with such neatly linked ideas and overlaid temporalities. Cast-offs feature as often as casting back. Smith only missteps with two scenes: One in which Isabel and Spoke trade fortune-cookie claptrap; the other—unfortunately Smith’s denouement—involving the party guests spinning real-life accounts on random themes—an exercise that could have been lifted from Smith’s creative writing course at Goddard College. It might be a book in which characters act languidly, stirring tea and watching leaves fall, always immersed in serious thought; a book whose protagonist is at times so love-struck she is hamstrung, reserved bordering on pathetic; but Smith’s prose is engaging and in the main she succeeds with the unvoiced longing, aborted declarations, and gauche fumbling. “It was almost a wordless goodbye,” she writes of a departure, apt for a delicate novel so preoccupied with the unsaid. Delicate yes, but at the same time satisfyingly assured.