There’s a quote from the Washington Post on the back of my proof comparing Joan Silber to Alice Munro which both piqued my interest and made me a little wary when approaching Improvement. Munro’s quietly insightful writing, uncluttered with fussy ornament, is right up my literary street but such comparisons so often lead to disappointment. Not this time. Silber’s novel traces the repercussions of a fatal accident through a set of characters – some directly affected by it, others barely linked to the event at all – exploring themes of love and redemption.
Reyna is hoping that her aunt, Kiki, will look after four-year-old Oliver while she visits Boyd in prison. Boyd has just three months to serve for a crime so petty that if he were white he might not have been locked up at all. Kiki has concerns about Boyd and is happy to voice them. Reyna’s judgement is not all it could be when it comes to men but Kiki, herself, has been keeping schtum for decades about her reasons for leaving her husband and returning home from her beloved Turkey about which she so often waxes lyrical. When Boyd gets out of prison, money is tight. His friends cook up a scheme smuggling cigarettes from Virginia to New York. All they need is a name to put on the vehicle ownership form which Claude’s sister is happy to provide. All goes swimmingly: money flows freely; Boyd, who Oliver adores, spends most of his leisure hours with Reyna and Claude seems to have met the love of his life in Virginia. One day, when they need a driver Reyna is pressed into service but her concerns for Oliver result in her stepping down at the last minute. Claude takes the wheel with tragic results.
Improvement is a carefully constructed novel that reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories beginning and ending with Reyna. Silber explores the ripple effects of Claude’s accident through a range of characters from his Virginia girlfriend, left with no news of this man she’d grown to love, to the three Germans whose visit to Kiki’s Turkish home resulted in her departure decades before the carpet she brought back to the States contributes to Reyna’s redemption. Silber’s characters are sharply observed, her writing subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Her exploration of love in its many forms and the stories we tell ourselves is insightful and pleasing. In short, that comparison seems spot on to me. I found myself wondering why I’d not snapped up everything Silber’s written some time ago but as far as I can see Improvement is her only book published here in the UK. All I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.