Davis opens her haunting memoir with “Time Passes,” and as this homage to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse reflects, her book is at once a meditation on art, an exploration of a marriage, and an effort to shore up the slippery banks of memory. Written with the clarity and force of a lucid dream, these myriad short chapters land variously in Brigadoon, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Buddhist Bardo, Beethoven, camping trips, high school, and more, before each returns Davis—perhaps fortified by the excursion to a past self, perhaps not—to the central trauma of her recent widowhood. But whether delving into key moments that shaped her or examining the shock of new loss, Davis writes in sharp, often breathtaking prose that pushes the boundaries of understanding —a stranger’s voice “registered not on my ears but on my frontal lobe,” a ghost stands “in a pillar of light you saw without your eyes the same way I heard the lake without my ears”—and packs a visceral punch: “there is the moment you step off the edge of the cliff before you hit the ground….this moment can last a second or it can last a lifetime”
Manguso’s first novel is made of so many fine, incremental observations that you may not notice the larger coming-of age story that’s taking shape—making it all the more jolting when it arrives. As narrated by Ruthie, a girl growing up in the fictional New England town of Waitsfield, daily life is a series of mine fields, which, if successfully negotiated, will lead to release from the class-bound rules and the diet of shame (her “birthright”) her outsider parents raise her on, even as she pursues the ordinary milestones of birthday parties, best friends, crushes, first dates, and drinking. Equally ordinary, however, are the girls’ physical and emotional abuses by male teachers and relatives—experiences that shatter Ruthie and her friends in different ways. Like Manguso’s deft nonfiction chronicles of illness, lost friends, and journaling, her fiction hones language to a laser-sharp edge, whether Ruthie is noticing a nightgown’s “cold little fireworks show” of sparks, noting how “the background of my life was white and angry, with violent weather,” or hoping that a friend’s high school pregnancy would ensure “that her father wouldn’t want to go near her anymore.”
In August 2015, Martin suffered an almost fatal run-in with a bear while doing anthropological field work in the Kamchatka mountains, then underwent nearly as brutal an assault during reconstructive surgery in Russian, then French, hospitals—"stripped, strapped down” and stuffed with nutrients via a tube—her “jaw the scene of a Franco-Russian medical cold war.” But the suffering at the hands of surgeons is responsible only for part of her acute alienation. Recognizing her “profound mismatch with society,” she just wants to return to the bear’s territory, and the narrative takes off when she’s smuggled back into Siberia in the back of a car. This leads to similarly riveting moments as she faces down headwinds in -50-degree temperatures, drinks blood tea from freshly slaughtered reindeer, and recalls epiphanic moments from her life “under the volcano with the Evens of Icha”—the most transformative being the one that made her a medka: half human, half bear. As meditative as it is visceral, this is an unforgettable story eloquently, and often magically, told.