I finished reading the eleventh Tournament of Books 2019 book, Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State“, which is running against Jesse Ball’s “Census” in the fourth round of the competition.
You would be forgiven if you read the premise of “The Golden State” book and thought that you are about to read an “Eat, Pray, Love” kind of book. This is nothing of the sort. Kiesling has written an intensely realistic and touching piece about loneliness, particularly female loneliness.
The heroine of “The Golden State”, Daphne, is a young, neurotic mother to a precocious 2 year old, left alone due to the machinations of the US Immigration system. The daily grind at her unfulfilling job finally makes her snap, and she decides to take her toddler and run back to Altavista, where her late grandparents lived. The narrative follows her through the 10 days of her escape. So far the “Eat, Pray, Love”.
Daphne is a victim of a society that does nothing to help young mothers (except pile guilt and anxiety on them in the form of study after study), especially young mothers who marry outside the tribe. She is caged in a pointless job that is full of daily humiliation, but the money is “good” (not good enough for SF) and the health insurance… She has no friends, no family, nothing of interest in her life except her daughter, who she can’t afford to spend time with. Her husband and his loving family is in Turkey, and apart from skype calls, she has very little chance of seeing them any time soon. No wonder she snaps.
Altavista is no paradise, and isn’t portrayed as such. It’s a semi-deserted place full of angry white people, only a handful of which remember Daphne and her grandparents. She has unknowingly fled to the only place where she could be more lonely than she was back home. So when an old lady who visited Turkey one time befriends her, she can’t help but reach out.
This novel would not work in any place but today’s US. It’s a novel of time, place and character more than plot. Every breathless rush to change diapers or calm a screaming toddler becomes momentous once you realize just how alone Daphne is, just how alone the society she lives in wants her to be.
The novel is interesting, fresh, sharp and well written, and it beautifully breaks down large political ideas to small, everyday encounters.
This book is running against “Census” in the fourth round of the Tournament of Books, and though they have very little in common apart from being stories about single parents and their children out on a trip, it was not hard for me to pick “The Golden State” as a winner. It’s a better book in terms of writing accomplishment, and it has much more heart than “Census”. I highly recommend skipping “Census” entirely, and reading “The Golden State”. It’s a very good piece of contemporary fiction.