BookBrowse Reviews The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

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The Golden State

by Lydia Kiesling

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling X
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michael Kaler
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Set in the High Desert of California, Lydia Kiesling's debut novel explores the emotional trials of early motherhood while drawing attention to an important social issue.

In spite of author Lydia Kiesling's stimulating experiments with form, the premise of her debut novel The Golden State is quite simple. Daphne Nilsen is verging on nervous collapse, so she flees her life in San Francisco for the "not exactly thriving" desert town of Altavista, where she owns a mobile home she has inherited from her grandparents and will have "literally nothing to do except mother [her] child," a 16-month-old toddler named Honey. On the drive there, Daphne contemplates the many woes that have led her to abandon the city, which include the deportation of her Turkish husband Engin and the burden of singlehandedly caring for a toddler while working a full-time university job. The novel's ten chapters correspond to the ten days of Daphne's stay in Altavista, but beyond Daphne's daily effort to maintain a schedule, Kiesling makes little attempt to build a unifying storyline that ties together all the days.

The author's sidelining of plot makes Daphne's ambivalence toward her role as a new mother the center of the novel. Daphne views herself as an "archetype—woman struggling alone with fractious baby," and for most of the novel, she rarely interacts with others. What little dialogue there is tends to be embedded in Daphne's interior monologue, which sprawls at a frenetic pace. Kiesling's elaborate but tightly constructed sentences lack internal punctuation, repeat words, and give way to each other in the associative manner of stream-of-consciousness. The style propels the narrative forward, despite the fact that not much happens beyond the tedium of routine childcare and the occasional visit to a rundown local restaurant; it also fully conveys the panic Daphne feels about her situation.

But if Daphne is stressed most of the time, she still never doubts her love for Honey. On her second night in Altavista, she plays with Honey in bed and muses about her multifaceted relationship to her daughter:

...this is the happiest moment of my life not only because of the smile on her face the smallness of her body the love for me she communicates with her entire being but because of the almost erotic knowledge that soon she will be in bed, the whole evening ahead of me without her.

The novel is at its most interesting in passages such as these, when Kiesling affords herself the chance to roam around Daphne's psyche and examine the nuances of early motherhood. Kiesling's project is not just conducting a moving psychological study of female interiority, but also critiquing America's refusal to recognize motherhood as a form of labor and provide anywhere near the level of government-funded maternity leave common in other countries (see Beyond the Book). Daphne's initial decision to leave San Francisco was in large part born out of her workplace's intolerable conditions for new mothers, and the extensive childcare she provides for Honey in Altavista reveals just how much work motherhood actually demands.

In the last third of The Golden State, Daphne decides to help Alice, a 92-year-old woman she meets at a diner, fulfill her last wish: visiting the Oregon-based work camp where her husband labored during WWII as a conscientious objector. Alice doles out her mysterious and tragic backstory piecemeal, but she consistently offers Daphne much-needed help with caring for Honey, as well as pithy advice about being a mother. This is the novel's most conventional part, with clearly defined motives, stretches of dialogue and a measured pace. The storyline's late appearance comes across as abrupt, but after 160 pages of following Daphne alone, it's a relief to see her find a friend.

Daphne's preparations for Alice's trip are interspersed with scenes in which she encounters her middle-aged neighbor Cindy, a member of a group seeking to secede from California and create a 51st state called Jefferson. Cindy embodies the presence of Trumpism in the Golden State: she shows up to rant about ISIS, reminisce about the region's glory days and make gruff comments about the government. In her anger about borders and her resentment toward bureaucracy, Cindy is the xenophobic foil of the protagonist, whose rage about U.S. Immigration's deportation of her husband is never far from her mind. The neighbor plays an important role in the sensational conclusion, but she often feels more like a plot device than a fleshed-out character.

Some technical flaws tarnish The Golden State, but in its best moments, the novel is sure to dazzle those interested in feminist fiction. Lydia Kiesling is a talented writer who has a gift for capturing the rhythms of consciousness and portraying relationships among women, and her career as a novelist seems poised for success.

Reviewed by Michael Kaler

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the October 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Maternity Leave in America

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