Isabel is a single, twentysomething thrift-store shopper and collector of remnants, things cast off or left behind by others. Glaciers follows Isabel through a day in her life in which work with damaged books in the basement of a library, unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer, and dreams of the perfect vintage dress move over a backdrop of deteriorating urban architecture and the imminent loss of the glaciers she knew as a young girl in Alaska.
Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf. For Isabel, the fleeting moments of one day can reveal an entire life. While she contemplates loss and the intricate fissures it creates in our lives, she accumulates the stories—the remnants—of those around her and she begins to tell her own story.
“An Alaska childhood and dreams of faraway cities such as Amsterdam inform Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, a delicate debut novel set in Portland, Oregon—“a slick fog of a city…drenched in itself”—that reveals in short, memory-soaked postcards of prose a day in the life of twentysomething library worker Isabel.”
—Lisa Shea, ELLE
"Glaciers, Alexis Smith’s brilliant debut novel, is filled with kaleidoscopic pleasures. Using prose as clear as pure, cold air, Smith moves the narrative vertically as well as horizontally, each ticking minute yielding more insights into a young woman’s life revealed over one single day. The past, present, and imaginary future stream into beautifully unstable geometries: Isabel's childhood snows from her youth in Alaska are juxtaposed against her adult trip to a vintage thrift store; her hopes for an evening party push against the echoes of war that haunt a young soldier whom she loves. Line by line, in and out of time, this is a haunted, joyful, beautiful book--a true gift."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!
" . . . Delighted me the whole way through"
—Maria Semple, author of Where Did You Go, Bernadette?
"A delicate and piercing first novel. Glaciers is like a vintage dress: charming, understated and glinting with memories of loneliness and love."
—Jane Mendelsohn, author of I was Amelia Earhart and American Music
“Glaciers is a carefully precise and beautiful meditation on one young woman’s restless heart. It resonates like a haunting postcard from someone else’s life.”
—Kevin Sampsell, author of A Common Pornography
"How appropriate that on the last page of this spare, beautifully written first novel, one character asks another, “Tell us a story—about longing.” For longing defines the life of Isabel, who grows up on Cook Inlet in Alaska and, after a trip to towering Seattle, begins collecting postcards from other cities, among them Paris, Budapest, and Barcelona. As an adult, Isabel finds a postcard depicting Amsterdam at a junk store she frequents—she loves old things; her job is restoring damaged books at a library—and is astonished to find that the postcard was actually sent. The card carries a message that inspires her to construct a story about sender and recipient. Isabel needs to work a little harder to construct her own story, though; an ungainly child, she’s still tentative about relationships and gingerly approaches Spoke, a colleague at the library who served in Iraq. A series of events, one involving a note about Amsterdam left in a book she’s repairing, wheels her gracefully in a different direction."
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"Smith’s debut unspools in delicate links of linear thought, told (mostly) in deceptively simple sentences embedded in the consciousness of Isabel, born in the Pacific Northwest and raised in Alaska with her older sister. Isabel dreams of Amsterdam and, “though she has never been, and probably will never go,” she believes everything is perfect there. The story ostensibly covers a single day, but Isabel’s recorded memories reach back to childhood, with incidents in between like a camping trip, an interaction with an astrologer, and a consequential encounter with an immense glacier. Isabel’s love of books leads her to get a job at the library, where she falls for co-worker “Spoke,” an Iraq war veteran whose sudden re-enlistment casts a long shadow, turning Isabel introspective at the festive party she’d planned to attend with him: 'Spoke is already halfway across the country, where people are making breakfast, letting dogs out onto dewy lawns, boarding busses and trains for downtowns, lining up in coffee shops,” she thinks, while “[i]n Amsterdam, it is already a lovely afternoon, the leaves turning, fall about to break.' This slim book’s lovely design respects and enhances Smith’s voice, with ample white space on every page and a general eschewing of commas and quotation marks. Lyrical and luminous."
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review and Pick of the Week
"Alexis M. Smith's Glaciers is a quietly powerful fairy tale. Smith's voice, patient and understated and precise captures the poetry of loss and longing."
—Cara Hoffman, author of So Much Pretty
"I cannot easily remember the last time I've been so deeply moved as in this quiet treasure."
—Douglas A. Martin, author of Once You Go Back
“The story is one of longing: longing for a life in a faraway city, for the love of a co-worker to be requited, for a closet full of vintage dresses. The book takes place over the course of one day in twenty-something Isabel’s life, with glimpses of her past remembered in-between. The present is used as a point of reference for the past, and although the story moves back and forth, the prose reads smooth like running water.”
—Alyssa Roibal, The Rumpus
“Smith’s toggling between fleeting moments and lasting belongings resonates through a quiet and careful balance.”
—Emily Booher, Willamette Week
“This weaving together of the personal, the sentimental, the environmental, and the trivial gives Smith's unassuming first novel surprising emotional weight.”
–Alison Hallet, The Portland Mercury
“In short novels like this one, every word has added resonances, and Smith has taken careful measure of every passage, testing each line for symbolic effect.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Sweet and sparse, Glaciers resonates humanity in the little details. Rather than cluttering a simple message with overly fancy prose and convoluted plot points, Glaciers holds fast to simplicity, letting Isabel sing through the pages. The descriptiveness of her life, and the understated elegance of the novel allows us to feel the relatability of the characters, and the tiny details all compound upon one another to lend us the climactic moment for which we read. Glaciers takes a risk in that Isabel comes alive through the world around her first, rather than in her actions, but it's done well. Glaciers manages to present not only a plot that is familiar in the fact that it is real and tangible, but also a full range of emotions that promises to tug at your heartstrings at least once.”
“The prose is wistful yet crystal-cut in a way that makes the internal monologues and thoughts sparkle, and the vivid memories flesh out the story of one day in the life.”
—Side B Magazine
“A delight, this book. A tiny delight, a beautifully-made thing, that breathes, has a life to it.”
“In Glaciers, we follow a young woman named Isabel through the course of one day in Portland. She goes to work and to a party. She buys a dress from a vintage store and summons the courage to act on a crush. Woven through all of this are memories from her Alaskan past, which together form a rich counterpoint of her inner and outer lives.”
—Oregon Public Broadcasting
“In her debut novel, Alexis Smith shines light on these 'little things,' thereby transforming Isabel’s world into something more beautiful yet complicated.”
“’Glaciers’ is written in a simple yet lyrical style, with the text surrounded by plenty of white space on the page, appropriately reminiscent of the way poetry is printed. The short time frame – just one day – compresses the story of Isabel’s life and gives it a powerful immediacy. You can think of this book as functioning as vintage postcards do: fascinating images coupled with intriguing messages that suggest a much longer and deeper story than their relatively few words convey.”
—Under the Covers
“Take advantage of a lazy morning or afternoon and read this delightful debut novel from a new voice among Portland authors.”
—Northwest Book Lovers
“This lovely, contemplative novel packs a bigger emotional punch than its size suggests. As with the title metaphor, so much resides under the surface of who we are in public, what we say, and what we do. Honest, bittersweet reflection makes Glaciers perfect reading to startthe new year.”
—Ariana Paliobagis, Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, MT
“This is an incredibly moving piece of writing, and Alexis M. Smith is an acute storyteller, and her attention to details is nothing short of stunning.”
“Glaciers is like a little analogue warmth in a cold digital world, like listening to vinyl, or posting a letter in the mail. It is a story that resonates and humanizes, and seeks to connect.”
Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne. It is a photograph of tall houses on a canal, each painted a different color, pressed together and tilted slightly, like a line of people, arm in arm, peering tentatively into the water. The picture has a Technicolor glow, the colors hovering over the scene rather than inhabiting it.
Isabel turns the postcard over, expecting nothing—an antique white space never utilized—like others on the rack, bought decades ago on long-forgotten vacations, and never mailed. But Amsterdam had been stamped; Amsterdam had been posted. The postmark is dated 14 Sept 1965 and there is a message, carefully inscribed:
Fell asleep in a park. Started to rain. Woke up with my hat full of leaves. You are all I see when I open or close a book.
Isabel stands before the rotating metal rack for a long time, holding the postcard, rereading the message, imagining the young man (it must have been a young man) whose small, precise handwriting stretches across allotted space perfectly. She imagines the young woman (Miss L. Bertram 2580 N. Ivanhoe St. Portland, Ore) who received the postcard, and how much she must have read between those few lines, how much she must have longed for him to say more.
Isabel turns back to the image of Amsterdam, wondering if the houses on the canal still stand, or if they have succumbed to time and damp. Amsterdam is one of those low-lying cities, she thinks, remembering a New Yorker article about melting icecaps.
She searches the rack for more of Amsterdam and the correspondence between M and L, but finds none. She buys the postcard and leaves with it tucked deep in her coat pocket.
Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and a halos of gold and amber for every tree.
Back in her apartment she pins Amsterdam to the wall above her bed, beneath another old postcard: four brightly painted totem poles and a few muskeg spruce, leaning over a marshy inlet.
Tin House Books Q & A with Alexis Smith
TH: How long have you been working on Glaciers? Do you remember how it began? How has it evolved from the beginning?
AS: I have been working on Glaciers for the last five years, with some breaks. It began as a series of prose poems about my childhood in Alaska. I was in my second or third semester of the MFA in Writing program at Goddard College. During the winter residencies I would fly out to Vermont from Portland for a week of true winter. Walking through the snowy woods to the library, listening to the creaking trees and feeling the cold on my face, really brought me back to being a kid on my grandparents' homestead outside Kenai.
The story has evolved a lot. When I started writing I was a footloose twenty-something bookseller, and now I'm a homebody thirty-something single mom. In the early days of writing, there was so much more angst--mine and Isabel's. The first year as a mother knocked the impulse to navel-gaze right out of me. My focus, and Isabel's, turned outward, to other people's stories.
TH: Many writers have a few practice novels in the drawer. Is this your first novel?
AS: No other novels in the drawer--just drafts of this one. This was my practice novel, in many ways. I learned so much about writing and being a writer from this book. Practical things like, how to write at the laundromat (and other unlikely places), and how to trick your brain into forgetting the internet (key: keep a big dictionary handy). And, other things, too--structural and stylistic and thematic things--but the most important thing being that writing a novel is more about getting shit done than about being a certain kind of thoughtful, articulate, creative person.
TH: Why did you choose to have the novel take place over only one day? What benefits do you have as a writer with this structure?
AS: I'll admit to being a big fan of Mrs. Dalloway, so that was a huge influence. I love how Virginia Woolf uses the present as a point of reference for the past. In a diurnal narrative, the point of reference is pretty static. Not much changes in the characters' lives in the course of a day, so it's an interesting way to examine memories and how they play in the background of daily life, informing relationships and feeding desires. There may not be room for big drama, but there's plenty of room for the smaller details that get lost in multi-generational sagas.
TH: How much of the novel is autobiographical?
TH: The novel is set in the Northwest. What is it about Oregon and Alaska that interests you as a writer? How is it different than the rest of the US?
AS: My family left Alaska when I was 10, and I've only been back twice since then. But both of my parents grew up there, and my great-grandmother and her son, my dad's dad, are buried there, so
I still consider myself an Alaskan—in spirit, at least. Spending those early formative years there really shaped my view of the world. Nature comes first there. You get the sense that people really have to work with or around the elements there. It's something of a cliché after Sarah Palin's rise to fame, but Alaskans are independent, hearty people with complicated and varied relationships with the environment. There's also a bit of a crazy streak—and I mean that in the best way. It took daring to populate this country and the most recently populated states still show evidence of that. My grandma can still tell you all about driving from Texas, up through the unpaved Alcan Highway in the late 50's, pregnant, with my nearly two-year-old father, by herself, while my grandpa went on ahead to get things settled in Anchorage. See what I mean? Crazy.
The entire Pacific Northwest is still haunted by that daring, slightly crazed spirit. My parents like to remind me that my first full sentence was, "I can do it myself," and I think that's a pretty good unofficial motto for Oregon, too. I spent a lot of time as a teenager, in the early 90's, visiting my aunt & uncle who live off of NW 23rd. At the time, that was the coolest neighborhood in town, with the great little storefront Marsee Baking and the food scene starting to take off. I bought Alice Munro's collected stories at 23rd Avenue Books and spent an afternoons reading on my favorite staircase in the West Hills. There was that one angry homeless guy I always crossed the street to avoid, and there were queer folks and protests and punk shows. I knew that if I wasn't going back to Alaska, I was moving to Portland, eventually. Even though I spent my middle and high school years in Seattle, also an infinitely cool city (but that's another story), Portland felt more like a city of outsiders, which, perhaps because of those early years in Alaska, was
where I felt at home. I've called Glaciers my love letter to Portland, but it's really a love letter to those early years visiting here--my first time really alone in a city, exploring it on my own terms and imagining a future in it.
TH: Tell us about the title? How does the environment figure into this book?
AS: My generation came of age at the same time as the idea of global warming. We entered adulthood almost simultaneously with the passing of the Kyoto Protocol by the United Nations. For me, having grown up in spitting distance of actual glaciers, the idea of glaciers disappearing was shocking. Glaciers seemed like living things, to me: they grow each year, or at least did for millennia; they move and have their own inertia; they are record keepers, time capsules; and they have shaped the earth's surface over time.
All of those things can also be said for human beings. Human populations moving over the planet, over centuries, have shaped the earth with cities and infrastructure, mining, etc. We move where the resources and food are, carrying things with us, leaving other things behind. The glaciers had their day in shaping the planet, and now we are having ours. It just so happens that all of these cycles eventually come to an end, and ours is of our own making. Isabel is reckoning with the intersection of those stories: the smaller human stories (loves, losses, change), and the bigger historical and environmental stories (wars, natural disasters).
I was worried for a long time that the title was too oblique, that it would come off as pretentious--or worse, too sober--for a story about a girl who really just wants to find the perfect dress and win the love of her work crush. But, somehow, it always felt like the only title that would do.
TH: What authors have influenced you?
AS: Every so often I read all of Jean Rhys's novels in chronological order. They are bleak, depressing books, and you kind of have to be in the mood to binge to do it, but they're so good, it's worth it in the end. Wide Sargasso Sea is her most famous novel, but her earlier novels are better, I think--edgier and less controlled. I think Voyage in the Dark is my favorite, for the way she draws on childhood memories. I'm also a huge fan of Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights (which makes an appearance in Glaciers); it's a perfectly imperfect little book, which is just how I like them. And when I really want to be inspired by a writer's use of language, I read Anne Carson.
TH: Your writing is very poetic, do you write poetry?
AS: I started out writing poetry, yes. Though I haven't written any in years.
TH: Your character Isabel works as a book mender at a library. Why did you choose that profession for her?
AS: Wish fulfillment.
TH: How does your work as a bookseller inform your writing?
AS: Honestly, aside from having immediate access to an amazing supply of books, being a bookseller doesn't really inform my writing. If anything, seeing the business side of the book industry should have scared me away from writerly ambitions by now, but what can I say? I'm in books for love, not money...