Dana Green’s debut novel How to Carry Scars is both a manual for loss and a warning against unresolved grief. The women of this book are surrounded by accidents and longing, and Green’s tender approach towards her characters creates a story of empathy that cuts through the heartbreak and leaves readers wanting more.
While Olivia’s mother obsessively documents the world in Polaroid, Olivia, Green’s protagonist, is often unseen—there is at times not enough room in her mother’s life for Olivia and her for mother’s compulsion, which seems to be driven by the dissolution of her relationship with Olivia’s father. Olivia is also unseen when she is forgotten at school, and when she is hit by a car.
At other times, Olivia’s mother holds her suffocatingly close, and through sections of unreliable narration from the mother’s perspective, readers see how Olivia is the only link her mother has to the man who left her years ago, and who she still clings to, inventing a mythology around him that is underpinned with the idea that having Olivia was always their destiny. It’s not clear if Olivia’s mother is trying to create evidence for parts of her life that have turned towards fantasy, or if her constant photo snapping is some other kind of coping mechanism, but it doesn’t matter as the effects of either are the same. In parallel with today’s “pic or it didn’t happen” culture, the image of Olivia, in this case pasted onto notebook paper instead of plastered on Instagram, becomes more important and more real to her mother than Olivia herself. Olivia is literally surrounded in their home by binders of photos collected over many years, and the grip her mother tries to keep on the ever-becoming past wrings any ideas for the future out of Olivia too. It’s also a lot of emotional pressure for a child.
Split into two sections, the second half of the novel follows Olivia after the death of her mother, and the narrative pivots immediately to first person—this shift might be jarring in a different book, but Green handles it deftly, avoiding a trope of Olivia “finding her voice.” With a car of her own and money from the sale of the family home, Olivia drops out of high school and heads into the desert with no plans other than what feels like a desire to become even more unseen. From there, she makes her way through a series of small towns, tearing up her atlas to throw makeshift darts at random destinations, drinking at depressing saloons, and holding a series of odd jobs until she finds a kind of kinship with two elderly women who know something about carrying scars themselves.
Green’s prose has a dreamy, underwater quality to it that seems to be found more often in short works, and there is a way in which How to Carry Scars reads somewhat like a novella. For as much documentation as there is in Olivia’s life, often the descriptions of the photos themselves are oblique, and parts of the built-world, like houses and movie theatres and bars, are revealed to have unknown rooms and histories, once the lens pans out a little. Yet, Green anchors this soft (or obscured) focus with plot events and details that keep readers grounded: the specific structural problems of a bridge; the familiar feeling of a childhood friendship slowly unraveling; the exact color of an inherited scooter; the struggle of losing a parent; the precision in which asphalt destroys skin.
Readers who like tidy resolutions will not find one in How to Carry Scars. By the end, Olivia is twenty-something, and while she is no longer a child, she also trapped in childhood. Her best friend, Natalie, who never answers the phone anymore, says “You live like a teenager,” and even that’s a little generous. Olivia remains impulsive, is sometimes not particularly good at thinking things through, and is easily influenced into reckless behavior. She also maintains a kind of wonderment at the world, the difference between seeing it through her own eyes rather than in instant-developed film. The grief Olivia carries never surfaces in the same way her mother’s had, and Olivia’s relationship to loss is to never have anything worth losing.
Ultimately, we don’t know what is going to happen to Olivia, we certainly don’t know if she is going to be able to make peace with her father’s abandonment, her mother’s death, and Natalie’s silence, and we don’t even know if she even wants to make peace with any of it. Olivia is raw and scarred, but she is trying, in her own way. What we do have is her story. And through it, finally, she is seen.
How to Carry Scars, by Dana Green. KERNPUNKT Press, September 2018. 222 pages. $14.99, paper.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, the novel The Pull of It, and the forthcoming novel If the Ice Had Held. She has also been published widely in lit magazines and blogs. More at wendyjfox.com and @wendyjeanfox.