Isabel, the hero of Alexis M. Smith's slim, emotionally precise debut novel, is a committed preservationist. A Portlander in her late 20s, she adores old photographs, scans vintage clothing racks with an antiquarian's fervor, and repairs damaged books at her library job.
"Salvaging the mistreated came naturally to her," Smith writes of the job. Of course, she's not just talking about books. Isabel is doing plenty of salvage work on herself, as well.
Little happens on the surface of "Glaciers," which tracks Isabel over the course of a day: She goes to work, shops for a dress, has lunch, goes to a party. But the book truly lives in Isabel's daydreaming, and the memories that whir in her head have enough drama and energy to validate the modest plot. A glance in the mirror can make potent remembrances of childhood taunts spike up; a postcard of Amsterdam sets her mind reeling about her parents' divorce.
In short novels like this one, every word has added resonances, and Smith has taken careful measure of every passage, testing each line for symbolic effect. That's an asset -- Smith's style is minimalist without feeling bloodless -- though at times it can make the story feel overly mannered. Pondering a row of dresses, Smith writes that Isabel "wonders what a group of dresses would be called, if they were living things: a choir, she thinks, a choir of dresses." It's a pretty line, but one that draws attention to itself, effortfully applying spiritual gravitas to Isabel's obsession.
Yet the prose's occasional preciousness is redeemed by the force Smith brings to the novel's core conflict. Isabel's budding flirtation with a co-worker comes undone when he learns he's being redeployed to Iraq.
When she thinks about how he might remember her and other women once he goes away, her imagination turns strikingly violent: "When he dreams of them he will open his mouth to speak and these girls will go off like bombs. Boom. Pieces of girls everywhere."
That line underscores the novel's persistent theme of loss: lost family members, the dying landscape in the rural Alaskan town where she spent her childhood, lost chances at romance, the fading stories in letters, postcards and clothes. The shopkeeper at a vintage store tells Isabel that when it comes to memories, the wedding dresses she sells aren't the most meaningful ones. "It's those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the goodnight kiss dresses. It's those first pangs we hold on to." Smith wants to open us to the importance of those memories, and she does it with an attentive grace.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.