…lungfish survive droughts by coating themselves in mud and sinking deep into sleep, the mud hardening and cracking in the sun until finally water returns and sets everything loose again, brings movement back to earth, and fish. Lungfish can go three and a half years without food.
…what’s new, now, is everything I didn’t see. My life behind the curtain.
Tuck is struggling to survive. She and her husband, Paul, along with daughter Agnes (two and a half), fled Pittsburgh after he lost his job and they got evicted. They head to an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. It features a house that her grandmother owned, but gran has passed. And the house is to go to her son, Tuck’s father. Problem is that Pops cannot be located, nor can he be presumed dead, so Tuck is stuck. If her father were around to inherit, then Tuck and family would have a place to live. Thus, they are squatting in the house, dreading a determination by the executor of Gran’s estate that the place be sold. Winter is coming and she has to find someplace else to live before that happens.
Meghan Gilliss – image from Skylark Bookshop
Problem #2 – hubby is a drug addict. It was why he’d lost his job and they were forced to move. He is trying to rehab on the island. And they are broke, having sold most of their possessions. So, Tuck is trying to survive on what little food remains in the house. Once Paul is well enough to work, he begins taking Gran’s boat to the mainland, and he does find something eventually. But then starts returning back to the island much later than expected, and with a paltry amount of money, and minimal provisions. So, the problem persists.
Tuck and Agnes forage for food in the woods and on the beach, barely managing to hold body and soul together. Tuck reads to Agnes. Her favorite is Rumpelstiltskin. They use the readable books that have been left in the house, religious texts, field guides, and poetry, William Blake gets some repeats, particularly The Tyger. There is a strange scent in the house that she associates with this poem and an actual tiger. There are field guides that help them in their foraging, and identification of local flora and fauna.
There are no phones, no internet connections, and a radio that is used sparingly with juice from a gas-powered generator. How does one cope with such aloneness? With only a small child for company most of the time? Many a new mother might ask the same question, particularly if their husband had made himself as absent as Paul has been.
Tuck has been mostly a passive sort, willing to accept whatever others, particularly Paul, might tell her. He is her provider and she is good with that, as long as, you know, he provides. It seems that he is better at providing for his addiction than he is at providing usable resources for his family. He tries going cold turkey, but it is a struggle, and the demons that have driven him toward addiction remain.
So, we have a very isolated (a total trope, on an island with no comms) woman having to face the fact that if she does not provide for herself and her daughter, no one else can be counted on to do so. This is her challenge and her path.
The book is written in fragments. Chapters (I counted 88, but could be off by one or two) are often only a page, or a part of a page long, comprised of small paragraphs. There is a lot of white space. But, while in terms of word count, it is probably not that much, it is a slow read. Gilliss has a very poetic style, which, while lovely to read, often calls for re-reading. Much of what we need to know is hinted at, but rarely overtly stated. It is a rewarding read, but requires real engagement. In a pointillist sort of way, Gilliss is offering us many, many dots, and asking us to step back and see the whole image she has created.
Several elements stand out. Smell features large. Tuck follows her nose to memories as well as contemporary revelations. The scents of her grandmother and father remain a presence, as does the unidentifiable aroma she names tiger.
I smelled my grandmother on the blankets in the mornings, after the night’s worth of body heat made a sort of steam collect in the wool; I smelled her on my skin. I smelled my father, too, when the tide was out and the mud squelched between our toes…I smelled my brother in the smooth-barked oak.
Hunger looms over all, a constant presence, made even more dire when she begins giving her paltry share of their food to Agnes. Yet Tuck is determined to say nothing, or as little as humanly possible, even as Paul returns home from work with little to offer them, having learned in a fraught childhood that it was safer to remain mute.
Seeing is key. By nature, I made do with what was given. By nature, I didn’t much notice what wasn’t. Tuck wonders how she had not seen his addiction earlier. But clearly Paul is not all that concerned, as focused as he is on trying to rehab, and then feeding his addiction. Abandoned by both parents, Tuck is now effectively being abandoned by her husband. But learning to see does not come naturally to her. I was late to so much knowledge.
Searching is another thread, which extends to the physical and spiritual worlds. It is crucial that she locate her father, so Tuck goes to the mainland library publicly accessible computers to search for him, and to search for a place to live, to search for her legal rights regarding the house, and to search for information about the drug Paul is addicted to. She is also searching for meaning. Tuck wonders whether it might help to attend church even though she is not an actual believer. Her grandmother was a Christian, but doesn’t faith require too much loss of personal identity to a collective mind? She also thinks about what is worth believing in, and what belief is. But she had been a believer in her husband, and now that faith has been shaken. She looks for meaning in the natural world of the island.
Gilliss writes beautifully about the nature her characters encounter, the creatures they see, and/or eat, the seaweed, mushrooms and other growing things that provide either calories or visual sustenance.
We have a piece of property like this in my family—a steadily shrinking piece of the land that generations of my ancestors have spent time on. – from The Millions interview
So, there is a lot going on here, a young mother coming to terms with the reality of her dire situation, contemplations of faith and meaning, using all the senses to paint a picture. It can be a bit tough to relate to Tuck at first. Really, honey? You did not see that your guy was doing drugs? How blind can a person be? Pretty blind, it turns out. But we can still relate to her struggle to save herself and her child, particularly once she starts to see more of the reality in front of her, once she becomes an active participant rather than a passive non-player. The writing is poetic and compelling, the fragmentary style interesting. It works to support a dream-like quality that meshes well with Tuck’s experience. Lungfish is a compelling first novel, beautiful and engaging, as rich with insight and beauty as it is heavy with dark circumstances and feckless behavior. It will be difficult to ever walk a beach again, picking up stones and examining the diversity of nature’s bounty without thinking of this book.
How could we be expected to save these things, one after another, when they couldn’t even do this basic thing for themselves?
Review posted – October 14, 2022
Publication date – September 13, 2022
I received a copy of Lungfish from Catapult in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!
Links to Gilliss’ personal and Instagram pages
Profile – From Catapult
MEGHAN GILLISS attended the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a fellow of the Hewnoaks Artist Residency. She has worked as a journalist, a bookseller, a librarian, and a hospital worker, and lives in Portland, Maine. Lungfish is her first novel.
—–Skylark Bookshop – Meghan Gilliss discusses LUNGFISH – by Alex George – video – 59:43
—–Ploughshares – Lungfish’s Exploration of Isolation by Kaitlyn Teer
—–Electric Literature – There’s No Place Like Grandma’s Abandoned Island by Arturo Vidich
—–The Millions – Peace Alongside Unrest: The Millions Interviews Meghan Gilliss by Liv Albright
Item of Interest from the author
—–Bomb – excerpt
Item of Interest
—–William Blake – The Tyger