The Given World by Marian Palaia
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: April 14th 2015
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
When Riley is thirteen her brother Mick is declared missing in Vietnam. This news kills what little desire she has to stay in their small town and by the time she is eighteen she is gone, making her way from Montana to San Francisco to see the ocean and to escape every facet of life that might remind her of her brother. She leaves behind her parents, a boyfriend and her newborn son. Marian Palaia follows Riley’s scattered, fractured path in her powerhouse debut novel The Given World.
Despite discovering that San Francisco is not the sunny beach mecca she thought it would be it becomes home for Riley even if only by the loosest standards. She drifts from living in her car and delivering newspapers to living on a friend’s porch and bartending. Through her aimlessness and inability to sustain a relationship with anything but alcohol and drugs Palaia makes it clear that Mick was the rope that tied Riley to life. Without him she is adrift. When she finally lands in Vietnam in the early 90s it is still under the pretense of looking for him but it is clear that for as much as she believes he can be found she cannot bring herself to take the steps that may prove otherwise.
My brother, if I’m being honest, is only one of the ghosts I have come here to visit. By which I mean the shadows in my head and not necessarily dead people, because I still don’t know. Show me a body; maybe I’ll believe.
The Given World is infused with the sadness of someone choosing to lose themselves to the pursuit of a question that cannot be answered. Riley puts her own life on hold for twenty-five years in a wash of dead-end jobs and substance abuse. It is a testament to Palaia’s prose that she is endearing, with a winsome unknowability and a fierce independence. Her choices may evoke conflicting feelings of sorrow and puzzlement but like so many of the people she encounters in her life we want to help her.
With consummate skill Palaia gathers changing viewpoints, slippery timelines, and multiple narrators into a diorama of the scattershot effect of war on the people left behind. The Given World is about Riley, but in bringing along the incongruous, tender-hearted characters she encounters on her way to find her brother, Palaia exposes us to all the ways people go missing, all the kinds of loss we have to endure, and how, sometimes, we can’t cope and so disappear.