Joan Silber’s ninth novel, Improvement, was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2018. The wonderful contemporary novelist Sarah Moss comments: ‘I admire Joan Silber’s ability to braid the narratives of objects and people lost and found into a shapely story.’ Lauren Groff, another of my favourite authors, praises: ‘I love all of Joan Silber’s work for her mastery of character, her ferocious and searching compassion, and her elegant lines that make the mind hum for hours’. The Washington Post refers to Silber as ‘our country’s own Alice Munro’, a high accolade indeed, and one which I was keen to explore.
In Improvement, Silber focuses upon Reyna, a young mother who can see the faults in her relationship with African-American Boyd. Nonetheless, ‘as she visits him throughout his three-month stint in prison, their bond grows tighter.’ He starts to pull Reyna into ‘a scheme which violates his probation’, and which she soon realises is a grave mistake. She decides to withdraw herself from both the situation and her relationship with Boyd. Silber then explores how Reyna’s refusal to be involved in the scheme affects so many people, and how ‘her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events’. This is a relatively simple idea, but Silber uses the multicausal plotline to great effect. Along the way, she examines convictions, crimes, family, and the connections which we forge with others.
I found the opening of Improvement thoughtful. Silber writes: ‘Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.’ We are then introduced to Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, who lived for some time with a carpet seller in Turkey, before moving back to the United States. Each section follows a different character, all of whose stories are related to the one which comes before.
When we first meet Reyna, she is in New York, which Hurricane Sandy has just hit. She is concerned for her aunt’s safety, living alone as she does, and takes her four-year-old son, Oliver, along to check on her. Despite her worry, Reyna is not always appreciative of her aunt, and the unfailing help which she gives. She says: ‘Why would I take advice from a woman who slept every night alone in her bed, cuddling up with some copy of Aristotle? What could she possibly tell me that I could use? And she was getting older by the minute, with her squinty eyes and her short hair stuck too close to her head.’
Kiki is quite a fascinating character, and certainly the one which I wanted to know most about in the novel. She prides herself on her independence, and spends much of her spare time reading and re-reading, and then extolling the virtues of literature to all who will listen. Of her aunt, whom she is very close to, Reyna reflects: ‘Only my aunt would think someone like me could just dip into twelfth-century philosophy if I felt like it. She saw no reason why not.’
Reyna is the only character who has been given her own voice. For the others, Silber has chosen to use omniscient narration, which allows her to really focus on the connections between the stories, and the knock-on effects which a single decision can have. Improvement is an entirely human novel, which is most interested in relationships and the associations which we can have with those whom we have only met fleetingly. Silver writes about the interesting, unusual, and far-reaching consequences of Reyna’s choice, and I found the way in which she went about this created a highly immersive novel.
Silver’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at times, but it is filled with much which makes the reader think. Her writing is easy to read, and her characters largely realistic. The different directions which the novel takes have been so well thought out, and I found them largely unexpected. I did not expect the snaking character trail which Silber creates, and now want to explore the rest of her oeuvre to see how her books compare.