A Tiny Upward Shove

Melissa Chadburn. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-27775-8

In Chadburn’s astonishing debut, the story of a Filipino woman’s short life is told by an aswang spirit. In 1994, after 18-year-old Marina Salles is murdered by serial killer Willie Pickton, the folkloric and omniscient aswang enters her body and recounts Marina’s harrowing coming-of-age. As a little girl, she moves with her mother, Mutya, to Westwood after Mutya is accepted at UCLA. While at a party thrown by Mutya’s boyfriend, Marina is raped at 13, then placed by child services in a group home in the San Fernando Valley. The environment hardens Marina, though she develops a loving relationship with her new girlfriend, Alex, who is also a victim of child abuse. Marina is emancipated at 16 and moves to a rough South Los Angeles apartment complex where she gets hooked on heroin. Strung out, she goes to Vancouver to help Alex find her mother. She ends up doing sex work to pay for drugs and meets Willie, who preys on young women with drug problems. The author’s poetic language enthralls, whether in relating the hardships of past generations of Salles women (“we broadcast them—each conversation a carnival of agonies”), or describing the bleak land of death (“There’s no numbing dope, no dick wows, no kitty kitty yum yum, just a floodlight on all the world’s needs”). This is electrifying. (Apr.)
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