L. M. Brown has also written poetry, and she brings some of that lyrical know-how to her promising first novel.
Debris by L.M. Brown. Ink Smith Publishing, 156 pages, $14.99.
By Ed Meek
Debris is L.M. Brown’s first novel. It is a coming-of-age story of two teenagers whose lives intersect and who bond over tragedy and family secrets. The novel’s title was inspired by a poem by Irish poet Lola Ridge: “I love those spirits/that men stand off and point at/or shudder and hood up their souls…” In Debris, a fourteen-year old boy, Andre, and a fifteen-year old girl, Erin, are obsessed with mothers who have died or disappeared. This fixation sometimes takes the form of seeing and feeling the spirits of their mothers; Brown heightens this otherworldly atmosphere by bringing in references to mythological Irish figures.
In the US, we have a social bias against grieving. If someone dies, we are expected to be sad for a brief period of time and then to snap out of it and get on with our lives. We tend to focus on the future — not the past. Our instant gratification culture encourages us to stay-tuned for what’s come. Otherwise, we might be plagued by FOMO.
The truth is, when we lose people close to us they don’t disappear. They remain with us via our memories of them and continue to affect us. Brown is good at exploring this kind of psychological immortality. Her protagonist, Andre, has problems at school and is estranged from his father because, after Andre is involved in a car accident that kills his mother, he blames himself. He believes his father blames him, too. As a result, Andre leaves the cushy confines of the big house owned by his successful father and moves to a house in a development to stay with his aunt and go to a different school.
There he meets the beguiling Erin, whose mother disappeared the year before and who lives with her alcoholic, somewhat abusive father. Erin is preoccupied with finding out what happened to her mother. Did she run away? Did her crazy father kill her and bury her in the garden? Erin and Andre bond, partly because they are both outsiders. Erin doesn’t go to school, and she gives Andre a place of refuge while he slowly comes to terms with his mother’s death. He helps Erin solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Along the way, they deal with some nasty local hoods.
The author lives in Massachusetts, but she has a close affinity with Ireland. The characters speak with Irish accents, though the setting and time period are a little hard to pin down. That might be to highlight the narrative’s fascination with enigma. Brown has also written poetry, and she brings some of that lyrical know-how to her prose: “From Eugene’s house the sea was audible and across the garden’s stone wall the dark surface lit by stars was still as glass.”
In this promising first novel she is also adept at using third person omniscient to explore the thoughts and complexities of her bedeviled characters. The flip side of her deep concern with the inner lives of her protagonists is that Debris comes off as claustrophobic at times. The plot plays second fiddle to psychological revelation, which leads to some issues of real world credibility as the story progresses. Do boys really slap other boys? Didn’t a certain neighbor disappear at the same time as Erin’s mom?
I have a few minor technical quibbles. Copyediting has become a fading art. The novel’s editor has considerable trouble with apostrophes: Ines arms, Ines’ hands, Ines’s dad all appear within two pages. Maybe writer Cormac McCarthy is right — we should just get rid of apostrophes. There are letters missing from words here and there, some run-on sentences, and occasional confusion regarding point of view. Finally, the font appears to be 10 point, single-spaced with half-inch margins. This means the publisher can stuff as many as 500 words on a page. That’s why Debris is a mere 156 pages. More conventional formatting would work out to well over 200 pages — and that would be much easier on the eyes.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.