Each of the characters in Laura McBride’s devastatingly beautiful debut novel has to face personal tragedy. Avis is the “bastard daughter of a teenage hitchhiker” facing the dissolution of her marriage and the crumbling of her son’s sanity. Bashkim is a young immigrant Albanian trying to behave perfectly to not upset the delicate balance in his home when several traumatic events occur. Luis is a messed up veteran, struggling to recover from a suicide attempt and digging his way through PTSD. Roberta is a volunteer children’s advocate who’s seen the worst of abuse, homelessness and helplessness.
What’s so brilliant about Laura McBride’s writing and story-telling is that this always remains a hopeful, even uplifting novel. I found myself reading with tears in my eyes several times, but was carried along by my confidence that these great characters would overcome. As the novel’s title implies, these are people called to rise up with courage in the face of great odds.
“If you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all the problems — and all the possibilities for grace — now fall, then you lose everything. Your only shot at this world.
I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.”
I love the balance of failure and grace which underlies the story. I, too, wanted in. Most books with this much courage & goodness set in desolate circumstances make me feel manipulated by easy answers and untrue characters. McBride avoids falling into that trap, crafting four distinct voices for her narrators, each of which rings complex and true. While my heart broke wide open for young Bashkim, I identified most strongly with Avis.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”
McBride slowly lets out the strings of each individual story before bringing them together in somewhat surprising ways, building the pace and drama of the book perfectly. I would have liked to have known Roberta a bit better. Her primary function seems to be to bring the pieces of the story together, as opposed to having her own journey, but that’s a minor complaint in the scope of the novel.
I appreciate that McBride also gave me a glimpse of Las Vegas I have never seen. I’ve only ever thought of Vegas as a place people pass through, not a community of families and friends and immigrants. While I wouldn’t describe it as a book about Las Vegas, the city’s boom-town nature certainly plays a role in the plot.
“Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, the children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”
The only thing keeping this novel from a 5-star rating for me is McBride’s tendency to over-write her characters beliefs and intentions toward the end of the novel. It’s as if she didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand their inner fears and beliefs so she delves into inner monologues (especially for Roberta and Luis) which disrupted the flow of the book. I suspect this is the insecurity of a first-time novelist, unsure that the author’s message hasn’t come through organically.
Still, I never wanted to put this book down and I know I will keep these characters close to my heart for a while to come. I have no reservations about highly recommending this book.