Lidia Yuknavitch knows misfits. Much of her writing concerns people—especially girls and women—on the margins, on the edges of experience, surviving, resilient, and magical, but never quite fitting in. Their trauma and suffering, and their regeneration through the act of storytelling, are reflective of Yuknavitch’s own: “Writing, making stories, drawing and painting and making art doesn’t release me from loss or grief or trauma, but it does let me re-story my self and my body. In this sense, to be a misfit means to be willing to dive into the waters of one’s life, swim to the wreckage at the bottom, and bring something back to the surface. We have to find the forms of expression that will let us move the story” (The Misfit’s Manifesto).
Laisvė—whose name in Lithuanian means liberty—is the extraordinary young protagonist of Thrust, Yuknavitch’s dystopian fourth novel, and she is the epitome of a magical misfit. Gifted with the ability to travel by water back and forth through time, she carries unusual objects of great significance to their rightful owners in order to change the course of their personal stories and free them from the conditions that bind them. Her own life is far from ideal. It is the year 2085 and climate change has led to the devastating rise of sea levels and the collapse and submergence of coastal cities. The Statue of Liberty, an emblematic figure in this novel, is now a partially underwater tourist attraction that can be reached only by ferry and at some risk. The enormous “underwater woman,” an object of great curiosity and nostalgia, reminds visitors of “a story they once knew.” That story is one of freedom for all, or at least the American dream of it, for so many oppressed, marginalized peoples, so many misfits.
Having fled violence in their homeland, suffering great loss in the process, Laisvė and her father, Aster, are refugees living in The Brook, a fallen major city resembling New York City, protected from the rising waters by the Sea Wall. Their own freedom is in jeopardy as refugee Raids are an ever-present threat, “armed men in vans snaking like killer whales through the streets, taking people away to god knows where.” When the inevitable happens, Laisvė is forced to leave her father, but instead of going to their designated safe house, she “will make for the water,” setting out on a journey to fulfill her magical mission, as given to her by her long-lost mother, as a time-travelling carrier of objects.
There is nothing linear about Yuknavitch’s narrative—time being an entirely fluid element in the novel—and the language, descriptions, and metaphors are elaborate, lush, and very dream-like, often disorientingly so. A reader intent on deciphering a logical progression to the storyline will be disappointed: this is a story to give in to, to float through, to be carried along by.
Laisvė’s mission connects three fascinating substories, emerging interspersed with her own. In each intricately woven narrative, it is an overwhelming desire for liberty and release from the oppressive bonds of their individual social circumstances that motivates the characters. We meet the 19th-century French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. In passionate letters exchanged between Frédéric and his charismatic cousin Aurora, a sex worker living in America, Frédéric’s singular sexual appetites, unacceptable in polite society, are revealed. Aurora, a recipient of one of Laisvė’s objects, herself seeks freedom for women in general and for the abandoned and abused children she shelters. Laisvė also travels back to 1995 to carry an object to Lilly, an immigrant juvenile detention caseworker with a violent past trying to save a young man from being lost to the penal system forever.
The third and most moving substory concerns four misfits—a gay Black man, an Asian man, a barren woman, and an Indigenous man—brought together, “all of us from someplace else,” as laborers assembling the Statue of Liberty in the 1880s. As the statue grows taller, the close foursome contemplate the meaning of freedom in America for people such as themselves, and what story the statue—originally intended to commemorate the abolition of slavery—will tell future generations. Here Yuknavitch is unsparing in her criticism of American social hypocrisy.
Yuknavitch has so much to say in this haunting, elegiac novel, and it takes time to swim through it all and appreciate what she is trying to do. Some of the most powerful writing in Thrust concerns women’s bodies, rights, and freedoms: timely indeed. Against the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and in the face of all the forces in the world that are continuing or seeking anew to curtail or eliminate human rights and freedoms, this is a book of and for dark times. “I would set us free from the word mother,” Aurora declares. “May your body be yours again; may your body belong to whatever you might have become, had you not been strapped to the service of breeding. And to the blossom of every girl ever born: May that violent rush of cosmic possibility in your body, between your legs, be let loose from reproduction. May you open yourself to the cosmos, creating new constellations. May it wreck the wrong world back to life.”
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Published June 28, 2022
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.