Author: Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Published: September 2012 by Engine Books
First lines: “I have spent years going over our past, untangling memories from dreams, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when fate sealed. The easiest place to start is with the most blatant mistake: our mother, Jenny, kept the matchbooks in the junk drawer.”
Rating: 4.15/5 secret cabarets that you can only get into by invitation
(an electronic review copy was provided by Engine Books)
I had a hard time rating this book. I had to bust out The Rubric because I knew that this book was just under or just over four stars, but I wasn’t sure where, exactly, it fell. And then I had to compare it to a few other books that I’ve read this year, because this year seems to have been the Year of Troubled Female Protagonists As Written By Women, and I mean that in the best way possible. The women in these books have not so much slipped through the cracks, but are pushing themselves through with purpose. It’s been amazing to read about women who have problems other than “oops, caught pregnant!” and “ohmigosh, why can’t I just find a husband already?”
Seriously, so good.
Spark is the latest offering from the indie book world in this vein, and the first book I have had the pleasure of reading from Engine Books. I’ve been wanting to check them out for awhile now because they hit every note I could want to hear in their “about” section: serious editing. Women-friendly. Good design. Story-driven. Yes, please!
At the start of Spark, we are dropped into a situation that already contains the tension Mauk continues to ratchet throughout: Andrea, the protagonist, has had the responsibility of housing her older brother dropped into her lap. No big deal for some, maybe, but for Andrea, the arrival of her brother opens her own personal Pandora’s box. Brother Delphie, you see, has just been released from prison. He’d been in for twenty years after setting a house on fire, and accidentally (or maybe not? but he swears, accident) killing the family who lived there. Andrea, in the meanwhile, has struck out on her own and made a life for herself–one that begins to come unraveled the second Delphie shows up.
It struck me as I was digesting this book that it reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye in some ways–please, please don’t let that put you off of the book if you have no love for Catcher, as I don’t mean that in a stylistic way. I feel like this is the book Phoebe Caulfield might have written twenty years later, if and when (it’s a when, isn’t it?) she had to take Holden in. A troubled brother finally trying to put his nose down and just adjust, to finally be adjusted; the sister who is coming unraveled because she has never been able to quiet all of the echoes of her brother’s disturbance. They’ve gotten into her at a subatomic level, and his reappearance has activated them.
This novel is relentless. Mauk pulls no punches, nor does she ever slip on the rose-colored glasses to soothe us from all of the shit going down. She deals with family problems and secrets in a raw way that would make people with fucked-up families shudder in recognition. Her characters interact gorgeously; these are characters that deeply understand their own motivations.
I did find a few parts of the novel to be a bit–mistimed, maybe? It’s hard to say which ones in a review because I don’t want to give anything away toward the end. I remember frowning at Andrea for re-asking Delphie a question on a matter that they had just extensively hashed out. Maybe I missed something subtle that made that exchange make more sense, but the re-asking of that question made the scene seem really anticlimactic. Mostly, though, I thought the execution of the story to be quite smooth.
Add Spark to your reading list. You will be happy that you did.