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.
Christmas 1985 for the Furlongs and their small Irish town is unexceptional. Bill Furlong delivers coal and collects payments, his wife bakes, and their five daughters attend choir practice, write to Santa, and finish their school exercises. But there’s more going on below this ordinary surface. When Bill opens the convent’s coal house, he finds one of the “girls in training” there. Disoriented, cold, dirty, and barefoot, Sarah begs Bill to help her escape. He takes her back to the nuns as he feels he should but, instead of dismissing the incident like a dutiful Catholic, he broods over what, in addition to its other unsettling elements, reminds him of both his daughters’ vulnerabilities and his own situation as the son of an unwed mother who never divulged his father’s identity. As he gets more involved with Sarah, he rethinks the way he’s been taught to do things. From the opening page’s “long November winds,” Keegan’s novel brims with heart and exquisite craft—it only looks small.