Salvage, By Jane F Kotapish

Stream-of-consciousness fiction makes a return
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The Independent Culture

In publishing's brave new world, where the Richard & Judy Book Club is the arbiter of taste and supermarkets stock the Man Booker Prize shortlist, we've witnessed the triumphant return of the traditional, accessible, narrative-driven literary novel. A more exclusive audience might find it comforting to know that there's still room on a mainstream list for Jane F Kotapish, a proponent of the school of lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose once championed by writers of the calibre of Eva Figes and Michèle Roberts.

In Kotapish's debut, we're invited to enter the mind of an unnamed woman experiencing a "slow motion nervous breakdown". At 37, her successful professional life in Manhattan has been brutally terminated by a traumatic event on a subway platform. Escaping back to rural Virginia, she blows her savings on a huge old house and renews her relationship with Lois, her lively, eccentric mother, who still inhabits the childhood home nearby.

It's important to hold on tight to these narrative markers or you'll be lost, as Kotapish leads us on a ramble through her subject's thoughts and memories. The novel follows a curious structure, being divided into seven chunks, each in turn chopped into short sections with one-word action titles to reflect their mood, for example "Cleave", "Drift" and "Climb".

These sections move between vignettes from the narrator's childhood, ruminations about the subway event and scenes of the woman's trajectory in the present, as she attempts to settle into her new home and to assimilate her confused feelings about her mother and her dysfunctional upbringing. Interwoven with these are snatches of conversation between the woman and her imaginary companion for 11 years, an unborn sister. The defining event of the woman's childhood happened when she was 10: her mother miscarried and her sinister stepfather left. This embryo-voice-from-Limbo represents an alter ego, expressing the woman's negativity and despair. At first an effective device, it loses its power because the passages grow repetitive.

Such an abstract structural approach can succeed if it allows a novel to develop and deepen psychologically, offering insight into event and character. Salvage doesn't manage this and instead the effect is episodic and flat. The storyline remains half-buried.

Perhaps this is because the writer is too absorbed in describing sensuous memory, how things look and smell, regardless of their importance to the whole. While her descriptions are full of perception and humour, they don't always deliver symbolic power or contribute towards a larger picture of the woman's central relationships and concerns. I suspect one is not supposed to end up as I did, feeling sympathetic to the engaging Lois, and wishing her suffering daughter would buck up.

All this is a shame as Kotapish demonstrates considerable talents and ambition as a creative writer. In particular, she cleverly uses her protagonist's rambling house to demonstrate the woman's inability to feel at home anywhere.

"You're pretending to live here," cries her mother, seeing that the daughter has filled the house with beautiful things but nothing that's useful. With its fascinating themes of trauma and recovered memory, there's a rather good psychological suspense story waiting to emerge from these wanderings of the subconscious mind.

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