Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"Breasts attract trailer houses and pickup trucks and lots and lots of tears."

~Griff Gilkyson, the irresistible (and, of necessity, somewhat precocious) nine-year-old girl at the center of Mark Spragg's spare but beautiful novel An Unfinished Life.
Griff has spent her short life growing up in trailer houses owned by her mother, Jean's, string of ne'er do well boyfriends. She never did know her father, as he was killed, before she born, in an accident. This accident left Griffin Gilkyson's life unfinished (the novel title is the inscription on his tombstone) though in many ways Griffin's life is the most "finished" in this elegant novel because it is done, even if it was cut off too soon.
An Unfinished Life is at its heart a family saga, and, as many of those sagas go (indeed as many lives go) the ties to family of origin have been severed by blame and guilt. The third person narration alternates among Griff; her mother, Jean; her grandfather Einar; and Einar's best friend Mitch. Jean' most recent abusive ex-boyfriend Roy is even given a few chapters. All the voices ring entirely true to their own character.
The novel also develops chosen-families (and, in the end i believe, even if we decide to keep ties with our family of origin that is indeed a choice and we are making them our family). Mitch says it like this:

"He's heard it said that a man can't choose his family, but that's what he did. He chose Einar Gilkyson, and Griffin and Ella, and this woman too. it doesn't matter that he hasn't seen her for ten years and he knows he'll choose the slight girl he met just this morning. Not because she's Griffin and Jean's, but because he liked what he saw. It's the way he's always made his choice of family."

Though Griffin's life may have been unfinished he seems to have left his loved ones' lives stalled at the place where he died, going through endless routines and regretting the mistakes they continue to make. Griff is perhaps the biggest victim, never having known her father she feels his absence as an ever-present hole in her life~one that leaves her not wanting to grow up (and not knowing how). Griff feels like she is always in a transitory state, moving from one trailer home to another with her mother and her string of abusive boyfriends. When she comes to her grandfather's solid log house she finally feels like she has come home.
This novel is very much a part of its setting, the open spaces of Wyoming. Though Jean reluctantly goes back to her hometown, to a father-in-law that hates her she finally finds the space she needs to breathe and find a new life.
"When I was Susan, I used to be a librarian. Susan had a very rich internal life. Starla lives it."
~Starla (née Susan)

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