In The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam wrote “Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.” That is exactly what Joan Silber’s new novel, Improvement, is about. Silber spins a yarn about interconnectedness spanning countries, people, and decades.
Improvement begins by throwing us into the story of Reyna—a single mother visiting her boyfriend on Rikers Island for three months—who is caught selling weed. Desperate, Reyna gets her Aunt Kiki to babysit her son, Oliver. Kiki is a free spirit who settled in New York City’s East Village after spending the better part of her youth traveling the world.
The book begins in New York and eventually pans out to Virginia, Turkey, and Germany. Throughout the story we get fragmented glimpses of Kiki’s fascinating history. Kiki went to Istanbul in her twenties, fell in love with a rug salesman named Osman, and promptly married him. When Osman’s business collapses, they moved back to his home village to help his father with the family farm. After eight years, a divorced Kiki suddenly arrived back in New York City. No one in the family knew what transpired between her and her ex-husband, and no one dares to ask. Reyna, who had a tumultuous relationship with her parents, was the only one Kiki became close to in their fractured family.
Kiki is worried that Reyna’s choice in men spells trouble for her—and she is soon proven right. Boyd eventually loops Reyna in his cigarette smuggling scheme, which sets off a chain of tragic events that will irrevocably change not only her life but those of people she has never met.
The story is divided into three chapters, narrated by loosely connected characters and written in succinct, highly measured paragraphs. The prose serenely glides over irreversible, defining moments and how differently characters deal with the curveballs life throws at them. Novels that span over decades and feature so many characters tend to get tedious and self-indulgent, but the writing here is so effortlessly crisp that Silber frames an entire experience in a paragraph with laconic elegance. Improvement is a meditation on the space of time and distance and certain defining events change people and propel them to re-calibrate their priorities in life.
In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Fates and Furies in terms of how it follows different characters over time in a way that is both minute and profound. Both the stories shift its gaze to the vagaries of time. But more than that—they zero in on how much subjectivity is a part of what happens to us and how we interpret it. Throughout the book, we trace the domino effect of a single event and how it impacted the lives of each characters in myriad ways.
Silber dissects our primal survival instincts and the pragmatic choices we have to make in a subtle, almost intuitive way. Reyna would spend three hrs to visit Boyd in jail but deep down she is aware of the ephemeral nature of this relationship
“. . .Some part of my life with Boyd was not entirely real, that if you pushed too hard a whole other feeling would show itself. I wasn’t about to push.”
The prose eloquently evinces human emotions—love and heartbreak, regret and loss, guilt and redemption. It’s essentially about how every small action can have incorrigible consequences. All the three narrators are at a crossroads where they have to decide if they want to go back to their old life or look for greener pastures. Another overarching theme is motherhood, since two of the narrators are working single mothers. They have to make tough, realistic choices for the sake of their children—sometimes at the sake of personal loss.
The one true constant in Silber’s novel is the transience of time and people’s incredible potential to adapt to change. At the same time, the story also highlights human fallibility and how people atone for their mistakes and try to redeem themselves. Improvement reads like fragmented character studies of a disparate group of people, intricately woven together by chance and fate. Exquisitely woven, this is a rich tapestry of human conditions.
Improvement by Joan Silber
Published November 14, 2017
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A Karachi-based critic, bylines in Book Riot, Vol1Brooklyn, Brooklyn Mag, The Spectator, Irish Times and elsewhere. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org