Nine Island by Jane Allison
For a moment, pretend you won’t love this book as aggressively as the waterlogged Ferrante, the smudged Zadie, or the Hardwick with which you smashed a bug and then read on, too lit to be precious. When something makes your synapses quicken and stir, there’s no time to grab a Lysol wipe.
Begin with the best of intentions. In lieu of dog-ears, tear scraps from the accompanying press release and pretend you’re going to write every meaningful quote in your Bart Simpson notebook later. Make it until the first-third of the first page: “I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.”
You know you’re a goner when you forget your delusions at 7:39 on NJ Transit, sleep-weary and weary-weary—the word pristine made for someone else—and underline at the bottom of page five, “Three decades of wandering among men. I have to ask myself, For what? Who made them the trees, the stars?”
Call the charade as you pluck the book from your stained tote-bag and see where coffee’s seeped into its pages, a perfectly nice finished copy you meant to protect. Then think of the time you passed a crime scene on your block, your first month in Brooklyn, first month alone in five years, and asked, “What happened?” A young boy answered, nonchalant, “Somebody got got.”
Feel got, in the metaphorical way, by Nine Island.
Should’ve known, before you picked it from the list of options, that this book would wreck you. What is it about these old dead white men that get you and Jane Alison, the author, so stirred up? Maybe the fact that that’s all you know: old, dead, white. Ciphers with so little context, you can divorce their words from time and place.
Divorce. There’s a gut-punch. Don’t cry on the train (you cry on the train; you’ve mastered the art).
Maybe you would have had a daughter and named her Penelope, like the Odyssey—“lowly wise.” Not lowly like the worm, but low like a cat slinking underneath a table, wise like one who stays below the fray. Names have predictive power, after all: Stormy, the animal you ferried across the country, cycles through tempestuous moods, but her fur is soft and stinky in a comforting way, just like Alison’s Buster, the diaper-swaddled creature that makes you cry on the train again (round two).
“A woman who wants, a man who wants nothing. These two have stalked the world for thousands of years.”
“I feel like a gaping maw of need,” you said once. Outside: bridge’s girder, unknown river, plants you cannot name.
No spoilers, but you get no resolution. You’re afflicted with loneliness until you’re not, and the relief is always momentary; it will come again, and you will have to claw your way blindly like Buster over the cork floor in search of the antidote. Nearly perfect book with a nearly perfect ending, in which nothing has grown easier—the opposite, in fact—but you (and she) are still somehow fortified against the sadness, able to swim under the wave. —Linnie Greene