It’s been a while since I posted, but I hope some of you are still with me. I’ve been busy working on my new endeavor as a writing coach, and it has kept me (happily) on my toes. However, when I saw that Lauren Sapala’s new book came out at the end of January, I knew I was going to be posting a review. If you enjoy this review and want to buy this book and the one that preceded it (I recommend reading that one before this one), here are the links: “Between the Shadow and Lo” (Book 1) , “West is San Francisco” (Book 2)
**Warning! Possible spoilers (though I’ll try to avoid them)!**
For those of you who are fans of the increasingly popular genre of transgressive fiction, Lauren’s memoir/fiction books are a must read. Her first book, Between the Shadow and Lo, was my first dip into the waters of transgressive fiction and had me hooked from the brutally raw start. (Click here or go to my archives to read my full review, and PLEASE read the review before purchasing. It is not a book everyone can handle.) That first book followed the main character, Leah, through her escapist descent into the depths of alcoholism and self-loathing. Through the collection and loss of family, friends, and lovers, Leah struggled to find her place in the world. Hopelessness finally loosened it’s grip and left us clinging tentatively to the hope of her redemption and escape…to San Francisco.
Book two of Lauren’s planned trilogy, West is San Francisco, begins pretty much where we left off. Leah has just arrived in the city that whispered her name, but falls into a familiar lifestyle when finding her place in the world proves easier said than done. The fog that is so pervasive at the beginning of the novel mirrors the nebulous state of Leah’s soul and it seems she will be consumed by the reaper’s shadow, which first tethered itself to her in Seattle. Finally, she hits true rock bottom.
“Then I died. In all that night with no stars, through the fog and all that lost time, between dimensions–somewhere in there–I died.”
“And then I woke up.”
Leah’s awakening from her death by alcoholism is a laborious rebirth. Once her soul’s fire burns her to cinders and her new self is born, she can’t just spring up out of the phoenix’s nest and fly away. She has to peel off the hardened crust of her past to expose new skin. This is facilitated by the captivating leader of an unexpected group, which gives Leah the time, space, and encouragement to examine her emotional baggage. Painful as it is, sifting through and unpacking her boxes of memories, her journey leads her to the innermost kernel of truth at the core of her being. Leah is a writer.
To say more than that about the story would be to ruin the surprise. I do have more to say about the writing itself, though.
The shining glory of this novel has to be Lauren’s descriptions. Her prose in the first book was gritty and beautifully brutal, but her words in West is San Francisco transcend into something smooth and rich while retaining their truth. Like, the difference between Hershey’s chocolate and true Belgian or Swiss. Here is a small sampling of the assortment:
“But the silky thinness of the fluid on my skin entranced and trapped me. The smell was so sweet, so chemical and strange, as powdery soft as evil. I knew I was playing with fire, but I wanted to lick it off anyway.”
“…delight cinched tight onto her suffering…”
“I tugged out the first piece of memory–something long and sharp that looked like it could be deadly, if wielded the right way.”
“At the deepest level, at our most secret core, we were the same as each other, and different from almost everyone else.”
And my personal favorite:
“It seemed my alcoholism was merely a symptom. It was a characteristic of a more pervasive illness from which I suffered: the sickness of being not-like-other-people. I couldn’t stop feeling. I couldn’t hold the world back. It crashed into my soul every second of every day, with full intensity and without any mercy. I felt too much, and I knew more about other people than I wanted to know.”
So, if you’re the kind of person who prefers an honest, naked look at human nature, who watches and listens for bits of people’s souls as they come and go in the coffee shop, who pushes past small talk and into the gravel of people’s pasts–this novel (and the one before it) are for you. Even though I’m more certain of Leah’s trajectory into happiness than I was at the end of the first novel, I’ll still be waiting eagerly for the third book in the trilogy.
“Scarlet Monroe, was that even your real name?”