"All we've left unsaid over the years clothes us as closely as skin now," says the unnamed narrator of Salvage. When we first meet her,
she is trying to sort through the emotional debris of her difficult life with her mother. Having just
purchased a ramshackle house in Virginia after fifteen years away from the area, she's desperate to make peace with the demons of her childhood, a time burdened with loneliness and solitude and the ghost of a dead sister.
between her life as a ten-year-old girl, her time working in New York, and her
eventual retirement to this leafy area of Virginia, our narrator paints a
delicate portrait of her mother, Lois, who proves to be a difficult woman at
best. Lois has spent much of her life gravitating between mad enthusiasm and a brutal melancholy.
When our narrator was only ten, Lois was pregnant; the next day, she suddenly wasn't anymore. Basically left alone with her stepfather, Charles - a mild, mustachioed, and in retrospect deeply depressed man - our young narrator's home life plays out against the Iranian
hostage crisis, Peter Jennings on the news, and Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Eventually collapsing into herself, Lois hides in her room for fifteen days
with only a hot water bottle for company, her mortality now an obscene presence in the house as her daughter tries to cope with her mother's absence. For days on end, Lois carves herself a niche among the bereaved while our narrator names her dead sister Nancy and begins to talk to her in the privacy of her closet, a conversation that ends up lasting for eleven years.
There is no way of knowing whether Nancy was a real girl, but throughout the course of this novel,
the narrator becomes engaged in a slow motion battle with who she might have been, where a part of her wants to set the record straight that life is not what it seems. So begins her sad, melancholic vigil,
telling of a mother who was never there while she herself resorts to bitter rants to Nancy in the closet, intent
on telling her all about this unjust and foolish world.
A devastating incident in New York ultimately proves to be this woman's undoing,
providing the catalyst for her flight to Virginia and the "cold river green" house with its lavish, reckless backyard, the property coming to a halt at a thick cluster of hemlock trees and a dilapidated gazebo standing just off to the side.
Here she finally embarks on a cat-and-mouse game with Lois without even speaking to her about it, concluding that her mother has dementia or Alzheimer's and has lost the center completely after she starts dating a series of younger men, all named after saints. It is also here that the narrator's only solace arrives in the form of a kindly neighbor, her uncomplicated wisdom and friendly banter adding a welcome measure of temerity while also providing a reprieve from the complications of Lois and her young suitors.
Author Jane Kotapish plays out this complicated mother-daughter relationship against a background of devastating imagery.
She dazzles our senses with sights, sounds, and smells, the prose deeply reflective of memory and of longing: "the vague rush of a deep seashell held against my skull, hovering in the coils of my eardrums like fever; the slap-happy sun revealed in the wanton lushness of peony and rose."
Through her ability to manipulate language so skillfully, Kotapish gets to the heart of this lonely young woman, her life at this stage in
a holding pattern as she tries to reconcile her deep-seated animosities with a confused love
for her mother.
A single life can be subject to a host of myriad interpretations, as Nancy continues to angrily whisper to our narrator down through the years. Although the constant barrage of images may be a bit much for some readers, most will be profoundly stimulated by the author's dexterity with the written word and also with her ability to convey the small nuances of human emotion.