Book-loving, twentysomething thrift-store shoppers will find local author Alexis Smith’s Glaciers at home in their hands. Smith’s debut novel’s main character, Isabel, is the epitome of the Portland stereotype: a cute, introspective young woman who works with damaged books at the city library and shops almost entirely at vintage stores.
That setup has the potential to be disastrous, a repetition of overexposed tropes. By digging beneath the surface, however, Smith explores themes much larger than our city’s affection for all things plaid and used. Much of the story is told through Isabel’s unfolding descriptions of memories and moments in reverie. The plot moves linearly through a day in Isabel’s life of working in her basement office at the library, strolling downtown streets, daydreaming of distant places, and lusting after her co-worker, Spoke (yes, the nickname is a bicycle reference).
But tucked between the chapters of the present day are stories detailing Isabel’s childhood—discovering her first thrift store when she was 4, watching the calving glaciers while growing up in Alaska, and moving to Portland after her parents divorced. Smith weaves past and present to bring significance to the small details of a day by reflecting on an entire life.
It turns out Isabel’s love for cast-off items isn’t an attempt at being the hippest hipster with the ultimate House of Vintage find. Instead, it’s a love for imagining the buried history in objects that were once new. She envisions the women who filled the spaces between fabrics of her used dresses and the people who wrote notes on the back of old postcards. Believing that nothing in life will ever go unchanged, she’s drawn to the remnants of others as a form of preserving human experiences.
Glaciers is composed of simple, organic sentences. With sparse writing and ample white space on the pages, the words gain importance and pass quickly like a book of poetry, leaving an unstated longing for permanence in an ephemeral world.
some of the Portland references feel excessive, mostly because we see
them every day—flannel shirts, bicyclists with one folded pant leg,
black coffee in Mason jars, thick-rimmed spectacles, vegetarian
restaurants—Smith’s toggling between fleeting moments and lasting
belongings resonates through a quiet and careful balance. Isabel’s daily
encounters highlight the power of an object to transport you to a
lifetime of memories.
GO: Alexis Smith appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Jan. 9. Free.