by Krystal K. Baker
Rennie’s dad is dead, and with his death, the life she’s known shrugs from her shoulders like a worn coat. Devastated and confused by the incidents surrounding his mysterious death, she is just as devastated by her father’s exit from her life as she was by his presence in it.
Like her 2013 memoir A Thousand Voices, which illuminated the relationship between Parker and a boy she nurtures as an adopted son, Jeri Parker’s latest book portrays the complex relationships between key players in a person’s life and who they become. For better or for worse, Rennie’s father was an anchor in her life, as were others–her grandmother, her brother Kent, her adopted son Carlos, and her lover David. The loss of each, culminating with the death of her father, leaves Rennie feeling confused and unmoored.
BlueInk Review has called Parker’s debut novel a Proustian memory-drama, and rightly so. The story weaves in and out of Rennie’s memories as they surface through the grieving process, and connections emerge between the seemingly random glimpses into the past. The watershed of memory unleashed by grief reveals the powerful residual connection to Rennie’s father and everything else she has experienced in her life. As she sorts through the pieces of her past she realizes she cannot extract her father, even now, from the person she has become, nor would she choose to.
Unmoored’s strength lies in the author’s ability to invoke rich images of the natural landscape, as well as the sometimes stark reality of human nature. The novel is seething with raw emotion, and with each glimpse into Rennie’s past the reader experiences the critical moments of her life, firsthand. This is particularly true in part 3, when Rennie remembers witnessing, and being asked by her father to participate in, the murder of a boy who lives across the street.
“Now you do to him whatever you want,” my father said, satisfied and leaning against the swaying trunk. “Get a board and bash him. Slap him, kick him in the teeth, throw dirt in his eyes. Use your imagination. Just so you scare the goddamn living hell out of him. Go on!” I see myself sink away, I feel my knees give. My father grabbed me by the arm. “Go on! If you don’t do what you want to him, I’ll do what I want and it won’t be pretty. Pretty hung in the air. Would I ever know pretty. Pretty good kid. Pretty day. Pretty girl.”
Sorting through these painful memories, her father’s death has asked her to confront, Rennie ruminates, “Where will I be when I finish remembering? Who will I be when I only know forgetting?” It is Rennie’s grandmother who becomes the resting point for these tortured thoughts. “If my father is the catalyst in taking me back, I see that my grandmother is the rescuer over and over again, even in revisiting.”
Through both haunting and comforting memories, the reader is transported from the famous Reading Terminal in Philadelphia to a small log cabin in the woods near West Yellowstone, and from the streets of Jerusalem to a dilapidated chicken coop in small-town Idaho, where Rennie’s family lives one winter during the Great Depression. And repeatedly we are taken back to the banks of the river where Rennie and her father fish together and where, now, she must sift through the early years of her father’s brutal nature, alternating at times with paternal tenderness. Like the river, Rennie’s father was a constant running through the landscape of her life, his influence disfiguring and clarifying reality, subjecting her to his erratic ways.
“I got my fly on the water quickly and let it float out. But my attention was on the river. I noticed what the clear water did to the stones and pebbles. It was as though the water could eliminate them and then return them in the next ripple. They were there, yet the water seemed to rearrange them. Things were what they were in the river. There was the current and the objects subject to it, and there were the banks that shifted and adjusted themselves according to the river’s whim.”
Raised in eastern Idaho, Parker has a love for its woodlands and rivers. And as with the main character of her novel, she too is a painter along with being a writer. The electric articulation of nature is clearly evident here as Parker asks us to examine life like we would examine a river, a mountain, a tree . . . or a piece of art, “to peel back what you thought was there, what you believed [it] looked like.”
Unmoored is an intricate portrait of love and loss. One cannot walk away from the novel unmoved.
Winter Beach Press
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.