A debut novel about new motherhood and political unrest from the editor of the online literary magazine The Millions.
Daphne has a beautiful baby girl and an amazing job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. She also has a husband who is stranded half a world away because of an unfortunate—and seemingly irresolvable—issue with U.S. Immigration. One day, the pressure of juggling these irreconcilable realities becomes a bit too much, so Daphne puts her daughter, Honey, in the car seat and heads for the wilds of Altavista, California. This is her mother’s hometown, and, after her mother’s death, Daphne became the owner of her grandparents’ trailer. In a narrative that takes place over 10 days, Kiesling offers a painfully honest portrait of motherhood and offers glimpses of a California that few ever see—or even know exists. Life with a new baby is an underexplored topic in American literature. One of the only authors who comes to mind is Lydia Davis. Kiesling is similarly honest about this strange, disorienting time, but, where Davis is a master of microfiction, Kiesling covers this territory in exhaustive—and, frankly, exhausting—detail. On the one hand, this feels like a public service; on the other hand, anyone who has lived through this experience might not want to revisit it. The depiction of Eastern California—a land of cattle ranchers and desert, far, far away from the ocean and Hollywood—is both depressing and fascinating. Like so many American places, Altavista has seen better days. Resentment is a boom industry. The fact that Daphne is descended from a long-established family is offset by the fact that her husband is Turkish. There’s even a group of secessionists, and the novel takes an unexpected turn when Daphne becomes embroiled in their revolution. This plot shift feels quite timely, but it also feels like it belongs to another book. Kiesling is a talented author, though, with a unique voice. She’s very smart, very funny, and wonderfully empathetic.
A technically uneven novel from a skilled and promising writer.