Michelle Bailat-Jones: Unfurled, Ig Publishing, 2018.
You may choose to discount this review, because I know the author and am pleased to count her among my friends. I have also witnessed her working on this novel and heard about her struggles with it. However, while that predisposed me to get hold of this novel (not as easy as it sounds, since it was published in the US and nearly impossible to get hold of in the UK), it didn’t affect my opinion of it.
You may remember I absolutely loved the author’s first novel Fog Island Mountains, set against the backdrop of a Japanese typhoon. This time, the setting is the West Coast of the United States, in Oregon. Ella is a young vet, happily married, and devoted to her father, a ferry captain. The childhood sailing trips with her father created a special bond between them after her mother, who had been struggling with mental health issues, disappeared the summer Ella turned ten. After her father’s death, Ella discovers that the mother she had been so keen to forget still played a part in her father’s life.
And that’s it really in terms of story. The rest of the book is about Ella coming to terms with the legacy of her mother and reassessing her past. There are some questions the reader will want to have answered along the way about Ella’s marriage and decision regarding motherhood, about whether she will actually find her mother or not, but this is not a novel of suspense. This is the kind of novel in which every action, every flashback, every scene has symbolic meaning. For example, there is a scene towards beginning of the book in which Ella is out on an emergency call to see a bitch who has just given birth to a litter of puppies and is displaying decidedly unmaternal instincts. It’s a harrowing scene, with Ella displaying equal measures of pity and practicality towards the poor creature who should never have been bred to have puppies in the first place. That scene seems so at odds at first with the other, more lyrical passages in the book, until you realise the obvious parallels to Ella’s own mother, equally unfit perhaps to be a mother, yet not regarded with pity at all by her own daughter.
I particularly enjoyed the passages describing the almost protective relationship the young Ella had with her fey mother, as well as the easy companionship with her father and their mutual agreement to not discuss what they call the Before. I found the way she refused to discuss things openly with her husband annoying and perhaps a bit far-fetched. But these are all complicated people, all of them flawed in some way.
Although I did not love it quite as much as Fog Island Mountains (probably because I am so partial to the Japanese setting), there is an equally slippery, misty, rainy quality about this book too. Nothing is quite what it seems. There is a bigger, darker world out there, and we’re trying not to let it overwhelm us.
If you are in the mood for a quiet yet powerful read about grieving, parenting and forgiveness, and how treacherous memory can be, then this is the novel for you. I cannot wait to see what Michelle writes next.