The Given World makes you care
In her debut novel, The Given World, Marian Palaia speaks to a contemporaneous audience through the vehicle of a recent era: the Vietnam War. Palaia demonstrates that not all victims of war are veterans — some are children, parents or lovers of those who are wounded, killed or forever-changed by their experience abroad.
It is hard to believe this is Palaia's first novel, considering how lyrical and frank her writing is. It is also hard to believe that Palaia is not writing about her own life, considering how sincerely and sympathetically she relates the life of her wayward protagonist, Riley. But it is, and she's not.
The book begins in medias res, and Riley is in Saigon, Vietnam speaking a combination of pidgin English and halting Vietnamese with a native patron of the bar. From here, the action rewinds an indeterminable number of years to an outcast's teenage years in Montana. It is not until the third chapter or so that the reader can connect the events of the narrative thus far, but the writing is so bold, so fresh, that it draws you in, nonetheless.
After receiving news that her older brother, Mick, has gone missing in Vietnam, our narrator loses motivation and turns to drugs and alcohol. It is not until a desperate but determined Riley flees the confines of the world she knows and drives cross-country to San Francisco without a plan, though, that she really hits rock bottom. In fact, there are multiple points in the book which cause the reader to think, "Surely she'll get her shit together after that last stunt," but she almost never does.
Throughout her stay in San Francisco, she encounters addiction, homelessness, drug fiends, abusive relationships and the pain of the AIDS epidemic. And she does not escape unscathed. The protagonist is constantly haunted by not knowing what happened to her brother, nor to a former lover who was also deployed. She traverses the dredges of society and welcomes the physical pain of hunger and abuse, in an effort to quiet the voices, to find a kind of balance, however fragile.
While Riley's experiences hit agonizing extremes, her search for self, for safety and for answers is one to which most readers can relate. Even in our day and age, post-Vietnam, post-911, Palaia's message is clear. In a discussion with Lorrie Moore in an Author One-on-One interview, Palaia explained that in war, everybody pays, and the people who pay the most are the ones who can least afford it. "I guess this was my small attempt to humanize some of those people, to make them real — real enough to be cared about, despite their flaws and their choices and their bad, bad behavior."
And this reader believes Palaia succeeds in evoking that empathy. Though the novel ends on an open-ended note, I imagine some kind of healing or restoration is right around the corner for Riley because, if it isn't, then there isn't much hope for the rest of us who don't have lost loved ones or Vietnam to blame for our poor life choices.