"Agnes--the first Agnes, who was my father's mother, not long dead, on whose island I find myself now, and whom I named my daughter after (if only to try to solve a mystery)--had always protected her love for her only child." Meghan Gilliss's contemplative first novel Lungfish examines such mysteries of family in an austere setting.
Her protagonist takes refuge from unnamed problems on an island off the coast of Maine, in her late grandmother's cabin, scraping a meager living from the rocks and the sea. In her fractured first-person narration, Tuck slowly releases information. She has brought along her young daughter, Agnes, named for the beloved grandmother. She is also accompanied by her husband, Paul, who is unwell. She has the field guides and religious texts her grandmother left behind, and little else. Paul's trouble and the issues they have fled on the mainland only gradually become clear, to Tuck as well as to readers.
Some chapters offer consecutive pages of narrative storytelling; some are very brief and take a more gestural or lyric approach, revealing Tuck's fragile grasp on her own story and history. The chronology shifts from present to past. Tuck's father, who is legally heir to the cabin where she squats with her family, is missing, and has always lived an unconventional life. "He looks off the rails because we cannot see his rails." Paul offers a new and different challenge. Tuck fearfully watches the calendar, knowing that when Maine's fall turns to winter, her family will no longer be safe on this island; just as fearfully, she watches for the executor of her grandmother's will. She scrambles the rocky beaches foraging for bladderwrack, rosehips, mussels and crabs, her toddler daughter in tow and knowing only this life. Tuck hides the key to the dory from her troubled husband between trips to the mainland for the most basic of provisions. It is a precarious system; mother and daughter flirt with starvation. A lone boat at sea allows Tuck to dream and hope.
Lungfish is a novel steeped in the harshness and beauty of the natural world, in which islands may be both real and metaphorical, where a woman may be accompanied by child and husband but also alone in navigating grief and responsibility. Tuck considers her relationships to her own father, mother, brother, her troubled husband and the growing Agnes, who "comes from different stock." Although this novel's setting is particular, its themes are universal. Atmospheric, haunted, but struck through with beauty and love, Lungfish is one to remember. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: A woman wrestles practical and existential questions of family and survival on an abandoned Maine island in this contemplative debut novel.