(Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2016)
In Rosalie Knecht’s debut novel, seeking relief can be just as dangerous as the problem you’re trying to escape. Set in Lomath, a small Pennsylvania town whose natural geography the author lushly chronicles, this is the tale of two lives coming together like clouds passing in the sky, altering each other forever, only to move along separately. Livy Markos, a sixteen–year-old, intervenes in the life of Revaz Deni, a bespectacled fugitive wanted for extradition to his native country of Georgia, helping him get out of her sealed-off town. As a result, he arrives in Philadelphia to rendezvous with a contact who gives him a lift all the way to California, where he begins a life we can imagine is very different from the one he fled. Yet it’s not her involvement with Revaz that causes Livy the most trouble in the end; she may have existential uncertainties about whether she should help him – a stranger, a foreigner, facing and maybe guilty of unspecified charges – but it’s a foray with other local teenagers that she has to reckon with practically.
A relief map depicts a landscape’s peaks and valleys, showing mountains and sea levels. What Knecht has done is use the most precise details of her character’s bodies, paired with Livy Markos’ interior monologue, to create a relief map of what claustrophic fear looks and feels like, what this fear and confusion can make people do when it becomes deep enough that it turns into terror. This is, ultimately, a book about realizing “the power everybody had to ruin everybody else.”
Relief Map keeps many of its secrets almost as if they’re incidental, while also suggesting that they are anything but. If we’re meant to experience the impossibility of making choices with imperfect information, the technique succeeds: we can neither judge nor applaud Livy any more than she can Revaz Deni. But it is there that our parallel with Livy ends. As adults, we are meant to understand that our desires for control over what others think of us are just that: impossible to fulfill. We’re meant to know better when we cannot change things, to accept our limits. Still, we hope to understand these limits. This capacity floats away for almost everyone in Lomath as assumptions overtake facts with dire consequences. For Livy, “her normal life was an island retreating in the wake of a boat.”
Livy and her best friend, Nelson, are restless as the police and FBI presence in their town shuts off traffic routes, even cuts out the power. “When the horseflies came you had to dive. She dove.” They decide to accompany other teenagers on a trip to the 24-hour pharmacy, where one of the teens, Dominic, wants to pick up his mother’s medicine. But Dominic is a wild card, packing a pistol that he pulls on the young pharmacist, who is just a teen himself. Livy would not be embroiled in this absurd kidnapping – they take the boy to Dominic’s house – if she had followed her own instinct. But peer pressure can be an overpowering force: “she was afraid to go but couldn’t say no without losing face.”
It’s impossible to read a story of a man on the run – entrapped by road blocks, federal agents, and manmade borders – without contemplating the times we live in: the very real thousands of refugees camped out on the floor of the Keleti train station in Budapest, hiding in plain sight. That was a flashpoint last fall in the ongoing refugee crisis that has gripped Europe, leading to the erection of new border fences. Budapest is the capital of a country that can only claim a short history as a European Union member, but it has centuries-long memories of upheaval and conflict, of citizens living within and then outside of geopolitical boundaries that shift regardless of their individual actions. The Treaty of Trianon, in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its land after World War I, lives on as a degradation on the lips of some Hungarians in streets and outdoor markets. In the fictional Lomath, it is first gossiped that Revaz is from the Balkans; it’s not until he has escaped the town that we learn he’s Georgian. What’s important is not who he is, but that he is wanted by the powers that be. What he has done, we never learn.
The novel also conjures the emergence of the neighborhood watch, the busybody who purports to keep us safe while using violence to do the opposite. The book opens on Livy, fearing she will lose her mind if the loud noise from outside wakes the infant she’s watching. It’s the kind of mind-losing worry that afflicts those who have never actually lost their mind. Later, that clinical kind of insanity becomes more of a threat as her stress builds: “Livy oscillated between a tired fatalism and total, shattering amazement at the scope of the disaster that she was in […] She was losing the logic of it.”
Knecht is gifted at depicting the fight-or-flight syndrome, revealing how its consequences land far from the event or person that sets it off. She weaves this into the dynamics between Livy and Nelson, teenage friends whose growing awareness of their sexuality changes their relationship as they navigate the waters of the town’s creek in the dark. Of Livy, she writes “her insides were slicked with a kind of dread that was hard to distinguish from excitement. She was getting out, at least, out and away through the woods.” Of the group of teenagers, “they were all running as fast as they could and that imperative obliterated everything else.”
This obliteration is at the heart of a book that also manages to be about what emerges after change and loss: “time seemed to split into two tracks, so that there was no time to move and yet infinite time to imagine the disaster that loomed in front of her.” In a reference to 9/11, Revaz’s driver points out “the plane crashed here.” Most who experienced that day would recognize that the characters have just passed the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 was downed. Knecht is an ambitious cartographer whose work will lead readers to take a magnifying glass to their own emotional and physical landscapes, probing for the tough questions not yet asked.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.