by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Hardcover: 352 pages
Review by Sarah Hahn Brooks, author of The Beginning of Us
What happens to a girl whose mother becomes consumed by schizophrenia? How will her world fragment? How will she know what is real, and what is delusion? How will she become her own person, as every child must? These are the haunting questions Sarah Elizabeth Schantz asks in her debut novel Fig. As the protagonist, Fig, defines and becomes defined by her mother’s battle with schizophrenia, she reflects, “I’m not afraid of growing old, but I am afraid of growing up” (268). Why wouldn’t she be? Wise, eccentric Fig understands her mother’s fears are not just mere delusion: violent tornados, feral dogs, drug-induced empty stares, shattered hopes and pain are real. In Fig, Schantz has crafted a narrative so raw and intimate that it is difficult to remember it is fiction, and not memoir. That is the brilliance of this book: fiction gives way to truth; Fig’s experience of her particular world resonates with any reader engaged in the struggle of living as a human being.
The brilliance of Schantz’s novel lies in its literary depth as much as in Fig’s raw, eloquent perspective. Fig’s mother’s delusions imbue a baby doll, a school-assigned flour bag, a set of nesting dolls, and a Mother Mary statue with disturbing maternal symbolism. Schantz crafts passages of words like an assemblage artist, piecing together fragments to create a shocking result. When Fig, as a pre-pubescent teenager, experiments with touching the farm’s electric fence, she reflects, “If I just take it — that is, absorb the power — I can make it my own. And each time I touch the fence, I fall. Each time, I fall more safely than the time before” (227). Often, Fig’s seemingly simple recollections surprise the reader with their metaphorical significance. About the way she’s become obsessed with picking at her scabs, Fig remembers: “I’ve seen my grandmother rub the ground where my grandfather is buried. When she touched the grave, it reminded me of how I now touch the skin where once I was hurt” (260). Schantz brings her readers deep into one girl’s imagination, but she also immerses us in a philosophical meditation on epistemology. Just as importantly, she brings us into an investigation of the relationships between child and mother, between self-soothing and self-harm, between human and natural worlds, between reality and delusion, and between death and life.
Fig is categorized as young-adult fiction, and teenagers will certainly identify with Fig’s feelings of isolation in the world and with her struggle to come of age. However, it is adult readers who will most fully appreciate and understand this complex novel. Adult readers will not only identify with the setting of the 1980s, but will possess the lens required to fully understand what Fig’s experience as a child has come to mean for her identity as a young woman. Finally, an experienced reader will reach the end of Fig’s narrative and understand what Schantz requires her readers to remember, to interpret, and to hold.
I remain haunted by this book. For the time I read Fig’s story, I stood in the Kansas wind, beside this girl, watching her struggle to grow up in a fractured world. I worry about her, still. And that is how I know Schantz has succeeded in this novel: what she has invented has blurred into what is real. Somewhere, Fig gazes out to the horizon, waiting, still becoming.
Sarah Hahn Brooks is a writer, a middle school social studies teacher, a mother and an avid hiker who lives in Boulder. She’s almost finished with her MFA at Naropa University. Her essays have been published in Room, Sinister Wisdom, The Iris Brown Lit Mag, Adoptive Families, The Juneau Empire, notenoughnight, and The New Mexico Mercury. Her one-woman play, “Translation”, was produced at Juneau, Alaska’s Phoenix Theater in 2006. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, was published by Riptide in January 2014. When she’s put her daughter to bed and finished planning lessons each night, she writes. Currently, she’s working on a new novel and a set of essays about lesbian history. Find her at her blog, firstname.lastname@example.org and website at www.sarahjhbrooks.com.