Friday, June 7, 2019

Scribe | Alyson Hagy

After the world has met an ambiguous near-end, a small community worships a dead woman by placing smooth white stones at the base of her property. This woman used to be a healer, a profession that she was forced into after her father died and the migrant community had no one else to turn to. 

She was loved.

Though in many ways the story is about this healer, it follows her sister, instead. The healer's sister lives in a house full of telescopes and pots of ink, guarded by a pack of stray dogs who feel a sense of fidelity to its only occupant. 

In the story's barter/trade society, this woman is a scribe. She exchanges her letter-writing skills for necessary and hard-to-find items and has survived this way for a long while. 

Yet, the migrant community who camps on the edge of her property fears her, their innate disdain for her only corralled by a tenuous mutual respect between her and their elders. Soon, a man seeks her help to write a letter to his wife.

Hagy's style is dreamy and ghost-like, the pacing of the story quick to change from hazy description to carefully brusque dialogue, the narrative flowing in and out of itself like an unpredictable tide. Some parts of SCRIBE read like magical realism, some like science fiction, some like a diary entry told in the third person. 

Though I enjoyed the book, its tone often felt nebulous and opaque, and it took me a while to trudge through the story in its more obscure moments (I think in particular of the journey sequence mid-way through the book). Yet it's a quick read at just around 180 pages, so even the sloshy parts are not a complete hindrance to the book's readability. 

My favorite parts of SCRIBE were the moments in which it departs from its main plot line (the scribe and the man) to quick flashback, where we meet the protagonist's sister and watch their family interact. We are taken through myriad instances of inheritance (the telescope, the red trumpet, the abstract concept of responsibility), and still there’s never any valor in the act of continuing a tradition. 

It seems that SCRIBE is less about the world that Hagy has presented to us and more about how humans process the remnants of other people, distant symbols that are diluted as they're recounted or passed down (and how these things are invariably passed down whether they’re meaningful or not). This book is deeply centered around storytelling: the act and impact of telling a story, the responsibility of the storyteller, the manipulation of meaning. 

Of all of the books that I've read this year, this is the only one I'll read again.

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