'Glaciers' is a strikingly visual novel - some might say novella, not just as this book is just 174 pages in paperback but because of the fleeting timescale of the story - and one that has certainly garnered plenty of positive attention, but it is also one that I think it would not be unfair to file under 'promising but not quite there yet'.
Alexis Smith's poignant debut is notable for its pretty vignettes, scenes from a day in the life of a young woman living in contemporary Portland, in which evocative pictures are conjured up in just a few words. Sadly the weaknesses in the plot and in characterisation mean that 'Glaciers' remains just a series of very pretty postcards and never amounts to something more worthy of Smith's obvious ability.
Isabel lives alone in a small Portland apartment, surrounded by vintage furnishings and home-wares, the relics of others peoples' lives. She works as a librarian, repairing damaged books, tucked away in the basement of the building, catching only snippets of what goes on outside her own little office. Isabel has a crush on Spoke, a quiet army veteran who does odd jobs in the library; on the day the story takes place, Isabel resolves to make her move and invite the taciturn object of her affections to a party.
Scenes from Isabel's day alternate with her memories of her childhood in Alaska and her parents' divorce which resulted in her moving to the city; much of this adds nothing to the central aspect of the plot but is by far the most enjoyable element of 'Glaciers' not just because it feels less forced. The cover notes describe this as a 'story about longing' but I could help thinking that the juxtaposing of the longing that is Isabel's unrequited love for Spoke with her longing for a time and a landscape gone by, felt like an attempt to create a literary gravity that wasn't really there.
I was instantly drawn to Isabel; like her I love to root around second hand stores and vintage markets and my home is full of 'pre-loved' treasures, but in many ways Isabel is a stereotypical heroine and the reasons for her love of such retro items are predictable and yet also under-developed. The biggest problem here is that having set Isabel up as this very particular type of person, she then behaves in a way that is incongruous with her character; most incredible of all is Spoke's reaction when Isabel finally finds the guts to tell him how she feels.
Surprisingly I didn't hate 'Glaciers' as much as my judgment told me I ought to. Ultimately it's a triumph of style over substance, even if that style is achingly unoriginal. I like cookie and kitsch, I like vintage, I like cats and quiet cute guys and thrown together as they are here, those elements prove comfortably compelling. Even the individual scenes are beautifully written, each one filled with colour and detail and as fuzzy edged as an Instagram snap. Strung together, however, they don't work; the story lacks structure as well as credibility and ultimately suffers because of the focus on being hip and of the moment.
In 'Glaciers' Alexis Smith has produced some memorable and rather beautiful prose; it's mellifluous and thoughtful and paints evocative snapshots of contemporary Americana. At times it's almost painfully hip and obsessed with outward appearances but there are glimpses of a talented writer who, if she can balance structure with style, is an appealing name to look out for.
Published by Oneworld, July 2013
With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
This review first appeared under the pen name Mary Bor at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk