All this month I’ve been looking at books written by women with a particular eye to their gender dynamics. A lot has been said about the progress the Western world has made in leveling things up, but there are all sorts of other angles that we could consider, not least: isn’t it sometimes the case that difference is a very good thing? There seems to be a lot less hassle with the terms yin and yang than with the terms masculine and feminine, and this surely must be because they are understood to be complementary. What it boils down to, I think, is the way any culture looks at its binary oppositions. Binary oppositions are an inevitable way of structuring our thought and our experience – from good and bad to night and day, from black and white to high and low, these contrasts are written into the very fabric of the world. The issues arise when one term is understood to be less valuable, or less meaningful, or even negligible in respect to the other. This is why for me, a balance of power is not about everything being the same; it’s about valuing all aspects of our experience and understanding how necessary they are to each other. When we treat the so-called ‘feminine’ qualities with the same respect and significance that we attribute to the ‘masculine’ ones, then we’ll be looking at a more equal society.
So what has any of this to do with a book? Well, Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith is a very quiet, gentle and charming novella. It doesn’t have a big, flashy plot, and there are no sensational issues raised. It’s the kind of book that might be easily overlooked in the bestseller-led market of shouty books trying to grab a slice of audience attention. But it’s the kind of book I think we’d be much poorer without.
The story concerns a day in the life of Isabel, living and working in Portland, Oregon, but brought up in Alaska, an experience that scores deep tramlines through her memory still. She’s a young librarian with a thing for vintage clothing, old postcards and the general ephemera of the past. They are self-aware choices that are less about lifestyle than her general tenderness:
She abandoned writing for library science in college, at the urging of her grandmother, who claimed there was no market for being in love with words. Isabel chose her area of speciality, preservation and conservation, as a minor rebellion and as a matter of course: salvaging the mistreated came naturally to her, though it might not be the most marketable skill she could acquire.’
The narrative clings tight to Isabel’s inner life as she moves through her day, and clusters around the little thing she has for a co-worker at the library, Spoke, whose previous job was as a soldier. There’s a definite spark between them, but neither has had the courage to pursue it. However, Isabel’s been invited to a party that evening, and as she buys a dress from her favourite secondhand store she’s hoping to invite Spoke to join her. The day doesn’t work out at all how she plans, but the outcome feels like life; uncertain, a little perplexing, basically okay.
Like the postcards Isabel collects, this is painted in sepia tints. It’s a very ordinary tale about ordinary people, but the lovely smoothness of the prose, the gentle hippy-ness of the perspective, the restraint of the characters combine together to make something subtle and special. The characters are flawed: they have trouble risking themselves, and the narrative is coloured by this intrinsic caution, and the past overtakes them and draws them back in ways they neither understand nor master. But to me, that felt like life, like the way we live it, rather than the way we prefer to tell it. And when I look at the supermarket shelves sometimes, it seems that’s an evening up that the book world might benefit from, if we can get quiet and calm enough to pay attention to the understated.