True crime has a devoted following in a number of popular podcasts, films and television, and bestselling titles these days. There’s some debate about whether its predominantly female audience is empowered (learn about this to avoid finding oneself in a similar situation) or traumatized by learning details about gruesome murders, yet the mainstay of the crime genre is plot-driven narratives to hold the audience’s attention. Following a different path, one which actively works to balance sensitivity and realism, Melissa Chadburn’s debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, skillfully folds a character-centered story about a biracial young woman’s fate into the real-life crimes of a Canadian serial killer. In creating a fictional character within a factual scenario, there is no ethically questionable retelling of a victim’s reality, but rather an acknowledgement of missing stories.
In many ways, the details of her murder are far less interesting than the dark trajectory of Marina Salles’s short life and her body’s life post-death. Early in childhood, Marina is warned by her Lola Virgie to behave or otherwise risk punishment by reincarnation as a cockroach. Interwoven with these threats is the suffering of seven generations of Salles women embodied through an Aswang, a mythological Filipino creature born from a collective of their heart’s unfulfilled desires. Marina devotes herself to her Mutya, a single and aloof mother distracted by a need for romance, and the pair become inseparable despite poverty and a lack of a support system to guide them. When young Marina is endangered, however, the law steps in. What follows is a tragic series of teenage years marked by neglect and violence in the Los Angeles child welfare system. Marina takes on sex work as a means of income for survival and later develops a drug addiction, which eventually leads her to the pig farm of Robert William “Willie” Pickton in British Columbia. Interspersed throughout chapters about the past are italicized sections that are closer to the event of the murder, reveal further context, and often follow the Aswang in the near present.
Tiny Upward Shove is at its best during these brief asides, which combine moments of heightened tension of the narrative past with observations and scenes that provide clues to readers wondering both how the characters got to where they are and what will happen next. This offers a similar gratification to true crime fans, who might actively collect evidence to solve the murder as the narrative unfolds. Chadburn’s unique voice, too, shines in these standalone passages, such as when the Aswang lingers in the forest near the pig farm:
The same trees Marina saw from the night before whizzed overhead. Some of them still laced with the spirits of lost women, their schoolyard chant bleating with the cries of getimgetimgetimgetim.
A murmuration of starlings above, eerie and maganda, set off by a change in season, an attempt to flee their prey. Swooping and intricately coordinated, like Lola’s fingers passing along her rosary. Hail Mary Full of Grace. Like soldiers, dancers, a swarm of soccer players—they moved together.
In the novel, such run-on sentences create a playful and intense tone at once, favoring a punk ethos as chapters swing back and forth among memories of joy or heartbreak. Acts of sexual assault and homicide and addictive behavior are not sugar-coated—the details are grueling to read. Yet what violence is included feels necessary rather than gratuitous for the sake of shock value. The reality is that violence will be jarring no matter the situation; its occurrence cannot be written off as an isolated event. Nor is it merely an effect of poor decisions. As in Marina’s case, there is no reasonable cause to claim that one would be able to prevent the violence inflicted upon them by making different personal choices. Who suffers and who thrives is as much luck as it is fated—a manifestation of generations of trauma. While the individuals in these novels are fictional individuals, their real-life counterparts cannot be swept aside. Ineffectual policies and programs, which often cause deep emotional and physical harm and continue to fail victims like Marina, make us all vulnerable to further violence.
The Aswang and its seeming need for justice represent the need to break this cycle. As the novel progresses, however, the backgrounding of this creature in favor of Marina’s story allows another theme to come to surface. When what has come to pass cannot be undone or rewritten, compassion is left after the outrage. We know that the real Pickton, like his fictional counterpart, is responsible for multiple homicides, though not all of his victims have been identified or named. Marina’s story is at stake, her life and its end unacknowledged. “Nobody misses nameless people,” Chadburn warns. As the Aswang carries the weight of Marina’s half-life, its motive evolves beyond justice as it searches for a way to sate “[t]hat exquise pain of Want. Desire.”
If any aspect of this novel veers away from the fine line of realism and storytelling, it’s the final pages. Fiction readers like myself can find comfort in a satisfactory ending, but a tidy conclusion might also feel disingenuous to the reality it represents. Of course, fiction finds a story within the truth. As we know, true crime has no true beginning or end despite the narratives that are presented to us. So, the challenge of balancing fiction and nonfiction is to find objectivity. Chadburn’s narrative gets right the mixture of hopelessness, longing, liability, and a base need for love that makes us human. She takes care to grant humanity to both victim and offender through the brutality of their experiences. The conclusion of their shared story is not happy, but it does find a way to reconcile the “bad shit” which unites them. Justice becomes mercy, a miraculous end to suffering, a way of “helping a hurt thing on its way—a tiny upward shove.”
Some of the best fiction appeals to our humanity despite fantastical events. Tiny Upward Shove is as sensational as it is heartbreaking because it does what true crime narratives sometimes forget to do, which is leave space for loss. The novel does not ask us to solve a crime, fictional or otherwise. Marina’s story stands alone; it doesn’t pretend to take the place of Pickton’s real victims, nor the countless missing or murdered “Indigenous womxn, girls, and two-spirit persons throughout the United States and Canada.” Chadburn, rightly, resists any “grievable number” of missing names and stories to mark an impetus for change. “[T]here is no end to the forest of missing women. . . . this is the story of humans, this litany of violence, pakshet jobs, and land grab, boom bang wars, roar roar rape.” Such is the nature of cycles, until we break them.
A Tiny Upward Shove
by Melissa Chadburn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published April 12, 2022
Caitlin M. Stout is a writer mostly found in Chicago. She holds an MA in Writing and Publishing and a BA in English from DePaul University. Her fiction has appeared in Motley. She is the managing editor of Arcturus, as well as a daily editor at the Chicago Review of Books. You can find her on Twitter @caitlinmstout.