A delight, this book. A tiny delight, a beautifully-made thing, that breathes, has a life to it. Instantly endearing to me –
Isabel is a woman in her late twenties living in Portland, Oregon. She works as a librarian, restoring old books, and is similarly interested in reclaiming other old and neglected objects she finds- postcards, vintage dresses, salt shakers, plates. Her life is one of awed, almost devotional remembrance, of attempting to create a narrative out of these stabilising objects and out of the memories she has from her Alaskan childhood.
As you might be able to tell, this book is not heavy on plot: it has been compared to Mrs Dalloway in terms of its limited timeline bolstered by the past, and by the intrusion of war. In fact, I wouldn’t myself compare it to Mrs Dalloway – I think it is a finer-boned thing. It doesn’t have lengthy digressions. It is spare, and precise. A slim novel, a novella perhaps (where does the line fall? Is it a matter of word count or of scope?) but it is the perfect length for itself.
Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and will probably never go.
As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at see before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafes and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.
– Opening paragraph of Glaciers
This was one of those books that entranced me in the reading of it. The idea of memory lapping at the present. The absence of direct quoted speech leaving the text with a feel of hushed voices. The childhood spent in the north of the country, moving to the south and to cities, the poignancy I understood through my own experiences of that particular kind of transfer.
And I had to take little pauses to absorb some of the beautiful sentences, because I was so awed by them. Because I was collecting them, to shore them for some later time. It was a book of sensual details, instances, looks, touch. Touch of ice, of worn wood, of an old, dust-sighing book. It seemed made to be read this way, taking the time over it. Though other reviews I read called it ‘a fast read’, it did not seem so to me. It was deceptively long. A book for reading in a garden. A book for the sunshine, for hearing the buzz of bees ruckling about in the daisies and sipping on tea. Or for the indoors, looking out on a snowy field.
The nearest thing I can compare it to is the experience I had reading The Summer Book, when I wanted to be on an North Sea island in good weather, reading it – it’s the same. Glaciers is not a collection of words but bridges (wee narrow, cobbled, lichened bridges) that hie you over into the sensual world.