A first-time novelist explores the curses and blessings of a childhood shaped by unreliable parents and an unforgiving sea.
This spiky, elliptical novel, which takes place on a fictional island off the coast of Southern California, begins with a beached whale. The inescapable odor and massive, macabre presence of the corpse are just two of the challenges Evangeline faces as she prepares for her wedding. Her long-absent mother has arrived uninvited. And it’s possible that the groom, a fisherman, has died at sea. While the whale is, in any practical sense, the least of Evie's worries, it feels horribly emblematic of her circumstances—maybe even of her whole existence. As she tells her story, moving back and forth in time, it becomes clear that Evie has a history of finding fixations to distract her from the most difficult aspects of her life. Ultimately, though, the subject she would like most to escape is the one she studies the most closely: her father. Evie’s dad is a beguiling figure, someone who provides for himself and his daughter as a raconteur and a drug dealer. When Evie’s a kid, his exceptional charm is just as crucial to their survival as his ability to score cocaine or produce epic weed. Sometimes they are the guests of wealthy friends who like to party. Sometimes they live in cheap apartments. Sometimes they are homeless. This instability makes Evie somewhat immune to her father’s charisma. As she grows up, we see how this colorful but volatile upbringing leaves her with real emotional deficits. Van Meter does not allow her narrator to luxuriate in self-pity, though. Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos. And Evie is self-aware enough to acknowledge her own complexities and shortcomings.
A quietly captivating debut.