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[Book Review] Lungfish by Mehgan Gilliss

by A.M. Larks

Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss is as interesting a book as its namesake species would suggest. It is a book of many things: family, parenthood, survival, money, secrets and lies, nature, and isolation. It is a book about life—life lived in the little corners of society where parents aren’t the perfect, food isn’t plentiful, nothing is easy, and people lie.

A lungfish is a species whose ability to survive tests the limits of our imagination, testing our idea of what is possible. It has adapted to survive without water, during droughts, for years. Like its namesake species, Gilliss’ novel pushes the boundaries of form, testing just how long a novel can be told simultaneously in the past and present through intersecting paragraphs.

This use of this form is not just a foray into experimental literature; it serves the higher purpose of mimicking life lived. Reality is not a linear event, not as experienced. An event, a moment, will trigger a memory, which will trigger a thought, which one will analyze, which may or may not be applied to the life still going on outside of the person while the thinking is progressing. Gilliss has managed to capture the chaotic nature of how our non-fictional life unfolds while still maintaining the interest and suspense that a traditional linear narrative offers. We still root for the protagonist to overcome the obstacles in her path. We cry with her when things seem insurmountable. We hope with her when she is navigating the difficulties of motherhood and partnerdom.

Indeed, it is only through this form that Gilliss is able to capture the non-linear nature of lies, secrets, and the fallout that happens when the truth is revealed in the visceral way that it is experienced in real life. This form allows Gilliss to interject the present plot with the remembering but remaking of memories with the now-added information or showcase the constant nagging search for the “start point” or “ending point,” or highlight the questioning of everything you feel, know, think, and see as would happen when your life is turned upside down. These reactions are innate and real as are all the complicated feelings that accompany them.

It is not only this adaption in form that makes Lungfish stand apart, but it is also the adept use of the first person perspective that Gilliss expertly weaves to tighten the noose on the protagonist, Tuck, and the reader. Gilliss uses the limitations of the first person narrator, the inability to know things outside of their perspective to her advantage to create a thrilling suspenseful plot. We cannot know anything but what the narrator knows. We can’t know what other characters are doing while not observable. We don’t know why others have acted the way they do or what they really mean, should it be different than what they’ve said. We, like Tuck, have to wait to find out or wait to never know—which is excoriating real.

It is all this “missing” information that Gilliss uses as fodder for her protagonist’s thoughts. We are stuck with Tuck in all of her processing and thinking and with all of her lack of knowledge and we cannot help but feel as she does. “I try again to imagine having religion. I try again to imagine having religion, and having it watch over my bed–where presumably, things happen.” This makes the novel’s events all the more visceral.

Gilliss has written a beautiful, intelligent novel that is more real life than fictional. It captures the intricacies of being human and uses this humanity as its own suspense. Will they or won’t they becomes will we or won’t we, and will keep you reading late into the night to find out if we survive the journey.

AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and drama. Her writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current assistant managing editor and blog editor, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me literary magazine as well as the former blog editor of The Coachella Review. AM Larks earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and most recently a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She is a longtime patron of the arts and enjoys stories that capture the complexities of life on the page or screen.


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