In Glaciers, the debut novel by Alexis M. Smith, published in 2012 by Tin House Books, Isabel repairs damaged books at the library, specializing in preservation and conservation. “She loves the smell of old things.” She collects postcards. She likes to shop at thrift stores. “She wonders what a group of dresses would be called, it they were living things: a choir, she thinks, a choir of dresses.”
It’s never the wedding dresses, you know. We keep those, too, but only because they’re so blooming expensive. No. I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses. It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.
[S]he began to understand why her sister liked to come here and try on beautiful dresses she could never buy: it was like trying on another life.
Isabel’s friend Spoke works in tech support at the library. In this sentence, we feel the gentleness of the narrator:
Spoke is the nickname he got in the war, and though no one here was in the war with him, it comes out naturally, as if it were the only way to acknowledge what he has been through without actually bringing it up.
Take a look at this paragraph:
She remembers sitting in an armchair with Agnes reading the nature encyclopedia, screaming over and over again, first with fright, then glee, when they turned to the magnified pictures of spiders. Her sister read that spiders have book lungs, which fold in and out over themselves like pages. This pleased Isabel immensely. When she learned later that humans do not also have book lungs, she was disappointed. Book lungs. It made complete sense to her. This way breath, this way life: through here.
Seven sentences. The longest one with thirty-one words; the shortest, with two. Each word feels carefully chosen. And then comparing books to lungs. This way, through here.
Isabel, she said seriously, believe me when I tell you that everything is temporary. Everything. There’s not a thing in the world that will not change, including you.
Repeated words and images (glaciers, lung, cheap, fuck, hands, bell, story) act like beads strung together to create a chain–only here they create a whole world, Isabel’s world.
And the ending will take your book lungs away.
On April 1, Alexis will add her day to the How We Spend Our Days series.