Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

She cups her tea in both hands, fingers wrapping around the cup and meeting on the other side.

I’ve read this in a review on Vishy’s blog and I felt instantly moved. I can’t quite explain why, but perhaps it was the feeling of intimacy and loneliness that the image conveyed, and ever since then I’ve wanted to read this book. A few months later, and here I am, the book read, my thoughts ready.

Glaciers Glaciers is a novel about a young woman, Isabel, who spends her days working in a library and her free time collecting vintage postcards and photographs, and shopping for vintage dresses. Told in short chapters, her story alternates between past and present, a movement which creates a constant shift in the narrative, quite like a wave. One moment we see what the city of Portland looks like in the morning when she makes her way to work, and the next we are taken back in time to her childhood spent in Alaska – a trip on a ferry and seeing an iceberg break from a glacier. Between the swirl of leaves in the crisp air and the coldness of the dying glaciers, the author reveals details about Isabel’s world – her longing for faraway places – Amsterdam is one of them – the stories she imagines about people whose names she finds on the back of postcards, her love for books – she works in the preservation and conservation department at the library, where she spends her days taking care of damaged books, the wounded.

The solitude of printed words, the quiet companionship of her cat, and the short conversations she has with Spoke, her co-worker whom she secretly has a crush on, make for a nice routine. Spoke has been to Afghanistan as a soldier, is well-liked at work, and he is quiet, just like Isabel. The attraction between them is palpable but repressed, their conversations apparently mundane. It may have gone on like this for a while, but when Spoke has to leave, Isabel suddenly realizes time is running short. Soon, he will be a memory, a moment in time, just like the postcards she collects. Her fondness for things that belonged to other people and damaged books can be a reason why she is attracted to Spoke in the first place. They are both quiet, enjoy their routine, and are marked by a past they can’t seem to shake.

I started the book and read a few pages, then put it away for a few days until this past weekend. Then I picked it up again and read it in one sitting. At just under 180 pages, the book is nicely paced and the writing easy to read. Its melancholy tone and beautiful writing convey a sense of fragility that is both compelling and profoundly marked by sadness. It’s almost as if we know something dramatic is going to happen while at the same time we can’t hope but wish that Isabel finds the happiness she deserves. There is, however, a ray of light at the end of this tunnel of melancholy in the final pages, when the story comes full circle and brings about the hope of a new start. Tell us a story about longing, her friend Michael asks her at a party, and Isabel finds herself talking about her dreams and in doing so, breaks free of the past she has long been a captive of.

I loved this book for its ability to shift between sadness and hope, between a melancholy past and the possibility of a better future. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it suddenly hit me while reading about the child Isabel (whom her father calls Belly) going on a trip to a Salvation Army Thrift Store with her father.

“There are treasures everywhere”, her father says, and Belly is still too young to understand the meaning of the word “treasure”.

“Belly, he said,…, it’s a treasure if you love it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, or whether anyone else wants it. If you love it, you will treasure it, does that make sense?”

Literary references, such as Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin brought back to mind John Irving’s In One Person, where this book is also mentioned, and I was wondering why it came up here as well, then I got the answer when the writer introduces Isabel’s best friend, Leo, who is gay, and has a penchant for writing his name on books he borrows from the library. Other literary references include Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) by French author Jean Genet, Apartment in Athens (1945) by American writer Glenway Wescott, and The Good Soldier (1915) by English novelist Ford Madox Ford.

In one chapter called “Architecture”, Isabel describes a visit to her aunt and uncle’s house. As I read the first few lines where the nine-year-old Isabel talks about the smell of a particular incense, nag champa, I had to smile, because I got a box of it a couple of weeks ago as a gift from someone who visited India, and now I could smell it and know exactly what the author was talking about. This is yet another little detail that helped me make a connection with the book.
Even though this is not a diary, it felt like one to me. Perhaps it’s the smallness of the book, the way the pages don’t align when it’s closed, and the intimate tone of the story. For some reason, while reading it I had a sudden urge to start drawing in it, the way one might draw in a diary, around the words. But I didn’t, because to write in books feels to me like some sort of abomination, an intrusion on someone else’s work.

Some of my favorite passages:

Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This is calving – when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg – a kind of birth. The calving sent waves, rocking the ferry. Hands gripped railings and feet separated on gridded steel. There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.


It’s never the wedding dresses, you know. We keep those, too, but only because they’re so blooming expensive. No. I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses. It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.

My rating: 4/5 stars

*Read in January 2014

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10 Responses to Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

  1. Vishy says:

    Beautiful review, Delia! I think this is one of my favourite reviews of yours. Glad to know that you liked ‘Glaciers’ so much. I loved this sentence from your review – “Soon, he will be a memory, a moment in time, just like the postcards she collects.” And this one – “Its melancholy tone and beautiful writing convey a sense of fragility that is both compelling and profoundly marked by sadness.” I loved all the passages from the book that you have quoted, especially the conversation between Isabel and her dad on treasures and the description of her holding the cup. Interesting to know about the nag champa incense 🙂 It was also interesting to read about the urge you had to draw on the book. I don’t know whether you have read Anne Fadiman’s essay called ‘Never do that to a book’. Fadiman categorizes book lovers as courtly lovers and carnal lovers – courtly lovers being those who take care of a book a lot and try to keep it new, while carnal lovers are those who don’t mind dog-earing pages, spilling coffee on a book, leaving a book open upside down or writing / drawing on a book. I think you are a courtly book lover 🙂

    Thanks for this beautiful review, Delia. It makes me want to read the book again.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,
      Thanks for the nice words.
      I am so glad I got the chance to read this book, it was a pleasure. I liked Isabel and the fact that she collected objects with a history, I think it’s fascinating to imagine things about people who are long gone.
      Nag champa smells interesting and quite strong. 🙂
      That’s a very fitting name for an essay about books, thanks for telling me about it. And yes, I like my books in the best condition possible – once or twice I underlined passages in a book (with a pencil, of course) or forgot bookmarks or banknotes between the pages but I do my best to take good care of them. I think I am a courtly book lover, indeed. 🙂
      Funny enough, I like it when I find a book that has writing in it, I try to imagine all sorts of things about the person who wrote that.

  2. Caroline says:

    I’m so glad you liked this as well. I really loved it when I discovered it last year.
    I find she writes so well and it was just nice to spend time with the book fr a few hours.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Caroline,
      I think it would be hard not to like this book, the writing is beautiful and time just went by so fast when I read it. It’s great to see you liked it too, I’ll have to go and check out your review.

  3. M-----l says:

    I still have Glaciers written down in my Book of Books to Read from back when I read Vishy’s original post. I think I’m going to add a little star next to the title for extra emphasis. You both make it sound like something I’d enjoy.

    • Delia says:

      I really hope you get to read it, M—–l, it’s beautiful, the story and the physical book as well. My copy looks a bit like someone’s diary.
      I look forward to your review. Perhaps you will discover other interesting things inside the writing.

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    Marvelous commentary Delia.

    The quotes and passages that you posted along with your review make me thing that smith is very good writer. Though short and sweet “Tell us a story about longing” is a great line.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      That was a great line indeed, perfect for the ending. She is a very good writer, there’s an elegance to the words and at the same time it’s very easy to read. The pages just fly by. This is her first novel and because I’ve enjoyed it so much I’ll keep an eye out for her future books.
      I hope you get to read it someday.

  5. TBM says:

    Well if you, Caroline, and Vishy like it, I’m adding it to my list!

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