Sometimes you pick up a book and it ends up being one of those truly amazing pieces of writing, the kind you wish you could have created when you were in your early twenties with college-angst. The kind professors yearn for and literary critics swoon over. Leslie Jamison makes me green with writers-envy. Her ability to take a string of simple words and turn them into a profound sentence blew me away on (what felt like) every page.
On the material surface, The Gin Closet is a novel about two women, one trying to find herself, one trying to survive. When Stella learns she has an estranged aunt she packs up her meaningless New York City existence and moves to the desert to help this broken woman cope with alcoholism and loneliness. Tilly is a mess, she seems to only hurt the people around her and has been that way she since she was young. She hasn’t had an easy life so when Stella turns up Tilly surfaces from her gin-induced waking-coma to think of the life she could possibly have, a life that means something, a life near her son in San Francisco. Together, Stella and Tilly embark on a trip; not a journey to somewhere even though they have a destination, more a sort of movement, fumbling many times along the way.
Told from both women’s first-person points-of-view, Stella is damaged, and Tilly is lost. The dueling narratives juxtapose these women, and give the reader a unique sense of being each of them, as well as watching each of them. This is a novel about family paradigms, but more specifically, female family paradigms: what it means to be a mother, a daughter, or a sister; what we do to our family and what is done to us. Jamison draws a true, poignant portrait of the dichotomy between female relations.
The Gin Closet is about the things we live with and survive through. How we perceive the one body we are given and what we choose to do with, and to, our life. What definitions do we place upon ourself? Anorexic, Alcoholic, Loner, Dreamer? What do we make of the people around us? Stella expects to be used, expects to be abandoned, but she is hardened and does the same to others. Tilly pushes everyone away until she decides to pull them close, but too close.
A beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of the female soul, a novel with an exquisite use of language, Leslie Jamison’s debut is remarkable in its simplistic truth. She doesn’t pander to the audience, she doesn’t mince words, she’s obvious but understated. Like Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, or Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, The Gin Closet is unsettling but utterly remarkable.
(I received this book from the author for review)