Book Review: Rooms for Ghosts, by Terra Brigando

This week, I finished reading Terra Brigando's debut novel, Rooms for Ghosts. Published by Wordcraft of Oregon and available directly from the publisher, on Amazon, and at Barnes & Noble, Brigando's slim novel reads like a fast-acting fuse, burning through its desperate narrative with creative and unforgiving imagery. From the publisher:

Terra Brigando's first novel, Rooms for Ghosts, chronicles the disintegration of a wealthy family while vacationing on an island one summer. The narrator, a young teenager, splits her time between caring for a drug-addicted mother and navigating her own desire for understanding ... Written in dark, lyrical prose, Rooms for Ghosts takes us on a journey that is rife with longing and confusion as the narrator searches for the love that seems to elude her.

Read my full review beneath the cut (spoilers light, but unavoidable -- and nothing the full marketing copy doesn't give away).

It would be easy to say that Rooms for Ghosts, filled with characters who can't quite break away from the grip of drugs, alcohol, and other obsessions, is a novel about addiction, but I don't think that does enough to hold the characters and their actions together throughout. It might seem like a trivial distinction, but I'm much more inclined to call this a novel about dependence. It would be similarly easy to call this a coming-of-age story -- and perhaps the final page or so demands we see the book in this context -- but that feels somehow false to me, too. The narrator, a fourteen-year-old who feels caught between her childhood and her adulthood, is simply too naive -- and appropriately so: she's only fourteen! -- to convince anybody by the end that she's grown. She has lost a kind of innocence and gained a kind of terrible experience by the end, but I wouldn't call either process one of age, necessarily. It's more complicated than that.

The very first line of the book shows us the narrator's mother tying a belt around her arm and pushing a needle into her vein. More than anything else, her drug use and her inability to escape it control the narrator's desperate actions from beginning to end. And if her mother is present in body but not in mind, her largely absent if loving father is the opposite. The narrator's own easy descents into alcohol and isolation mirror those of her parents on a smaller, or simply a younger, scale. Where Brigando succeeds most, though, is not in showing us the faults in her characters, but in questioning why those faults both exist in and persist from one generation to the next. This is why I see the text as one that explores dependency rather than addiction. The characters' addictions, where they exist, are born of and exacerbated by their dependence on the deeply unreliable people around them. The mother's unsatisfied need for the father's affection fuels the addiction that makes her unavailable to the needs of her daughter. The father's unsatisfied need for the mother's validation fuels the longing that pushes him out of the house. The daughter's unsatisfied need for her parents' guidance drives her to some unsettling depths I won't deign to give away here -- only the brief and intense but ultimately unsatisfying relationships she forms with others pulling her intermittently back up. In these ways, Brigando explores the connections between loneliness, co-dependence, and self-destructive behavior in complex and believable ways.

At fourteen, the narrator is still struggling through her early adolescence, constantly at war with her instincts to both revert into her childhood and advance into her womanhood. A less interesting book would simply give us a character moving from the former into the latter, but Brigando understands that her narrator is neither young enough to fully embrace childishness nor old enough to lay a reasonable claim on womanhood, and that the three or so months that pass from beginning to end are not anywhere near long enough to move her from one to the other. I can't call this a coming of age because, still only fourteen at the end of the summer, she simply can't possibly have come of age. Being free of the coming-of-age frame, however, allows Brigando to focus her narrative less on the journey from point A to point B, and more on the unstable, unhappy liminal space between. This can be pretty unsettling, and the narrator's experiments with activities far too mature for her fourteen years make us squirm all the more when she betrays her very real youth in the next, childish moment. This side of the novel is not comfortable, but it is unfailingly complex and believable.

If I think the novel fails at all, it's only in betraying this liminality, the pain and instability of being stuck between people, between ages, between seasons, and between impulses at the last possible moment. But if the final page or so rings a little false, it's only because the rest of what we've seen leading up to it rings so true.

Though it seems that maybe I've given away a lot of what might be found in these 100 pages, I assure you there are surprises to be found yet. In his jacket blurb, AWP Novel Award winner Duff Brenna writes that "Brigando sets a blistering pace that never lets up." That pace carries the reader breathlessly through three months of action that I can't simply summarize in a few paragraphs of review.

Before I end, I would be remiss if I did not mention Brigando's skill as a stylist. She particularly thrives with her imagery, which burns hot and dense on every page. I get the impression reading that for every insightful, surprising image that made the final product, Brigando had a dozen more at the ready she might have used and left out. At times recalling Aimee Bender, Brigando finds new images, metaphors, similes, and expressions that combine both the beauty and the brutality of her story on page after page. With a narrator so young and inexperienced as the one she gives us, this runs the risk of pulling us out of the character, but somehow Brigando's stylistic flourishes never feel out of character or inappropriate to the moment.

This is a tight, fast, unforgiving piece of writing, and I enthusiastically recommend it. You can find Brigando online at terrabrigando.com.