Someplace Like This by Renee Ashley and Snow Island by Katherine Towler

reviewed by Laura McCullough

Renee Ashley, noted for her collections of poetry, Salt, The Various Reasons of Light, and The Revisionist's Dream and Katie Towler's first novels both delve into the craggy landscape between place and memory. Ashley's Somplace Like This (The Permanent Press, 2003) and Towler's Snow Island  (Plume, 2003) share a great deal in common: both place their female protagonist on an island, both deal with memory, each with loss and of invention or re-invention of self. Both novels use male characters as foils for their female main characters, and additional male characters figure into the transformation the women will go through  by novels' end. They are luminous novels that remind us if places we've been and survived.

Ashley and Towler have both suceeded in creating rich landscapes that mirror the interior lives of their protagonists. The island in Ashley's novel is well populated, lively, a mixture of contemporary shore life: privacy and kitsch, ocean and tourist spots. Towler gives us a more remote island, off the cost of Maine, that most engmatic of states, in the forties in the off season. Ashley's protagonist, Dore,  is the older of the two characters, in her late thirties, married, and dealing with the loss of a child. Towler's Alice is just sixteen with a load of family responsibility after her father’s death and the uncertainty of self and future that goes with being sixteen. This, however, is compounded by the political events of the time.

Ashley's story is told from Dore's ruminative point of view, one that echoes the "self-talk" of grief work, which will be familiar to those who have had to walk themselves through a healing process. Dore has come into a second marriage after the weight of grief has collapsed her first marriage, but here it is again, the issue has come with her to haunt this marriage. Dore says, "I drag that old life with me like a dead cat in a sack".

Dore's husband is a core figure around whom Dore tries to dance, hoping to save the marriage, but it is really the relationship she strikes up with a waiter on the island that begins to offer her some respite from self-recrimination. Similarly, in Towler's novel, young Alice, resilient, capable, yet fragile in the way we all are at the age, is trying to find herself. Rather than coming to an island for resussitation, as Dore does, Alice will, as she must, eventually leave it, but on the way, two men will figure into her movement towards herself. First there is George, returning to the island with his own mysteries and grief, and Ethan, the lighthouse keeper, not too very much older than Alice herself, and what he can teach her about life, or what she thinks he might.

Ashley's Dore says, "It has been pointed out to me that I am undefined, that I don't know what I want, and that this is my whole problem." Towler's Alice is aware, too, of her predicament, but takes bold action to move beyond it. The surprise in Towler's novel is how it all ends, and I won't ruin that here, but Alice manages to confront her own vulnerabilities through her odd relationship with George and cement their understanding of how we all go on, how we bear the lives we have.

In the end, Alice, faces the external life she must claim; Dore will do something of the opposite, and her claim is decidely internal. One woman will leave her island; one will stay. Both will be transformed.

These are both wonderfully drawn novels, Towler's with the careful eye of the good story-teller; there is a smart sense of pacing and the characters are well constructed. It's clear Towler allowed them to tell her who they were, to let them come to life. Ashley's novel has the fingerprints of the poet all over it: lyric, well attended to sentences, microscopic where Towler is more telescopic.

They both have elements of beauty and wonder, but each is crafted with precision. Ashley and Towler were not so in love with their characters that they would let them off the hook; there's pain here, sometimes nuanced and exquisite, sometimes archetypal.

Someplace Like This  and Snow Island are both places we've all been.

Laura McCullough

Laura has an MFA from Goddard College, won a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship, was awarded the 2005 Prairie Schooner Merit Scholarship in poetry, and was a 2005 Breadloaf Contributor. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Rock Plum Salt Review, Blue Fifth Quarterly, 2 River View, Iron Horse Review, Gulf Coast, Boulevard, Exquisite Corpse, and others. Her first collection, The Dancing Bear, will be out in late 2005 by Open Book Press.