How to Carry Scars
Kernpunkt Press, 2018
231 Pages, $14.99
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
How To Carry Scars (Kernpunkt Press, 2018) is, in most basic terms, a two-part coming of age story. We follow Olivia from girlhood to young adulthood as she seeks truth, identity, and ultimately happiness. In the first half of the novel, Olivia has a contentious relationship with the notebooks her mother, the center of her world, compulsively hoards. Her mother, obsessed with cataloguing everyday details, captures Polaroid snapshots of her daily coffee, sidewalk cracks, scraps of food, flower petals, and then methodically saves each one in hundreds of thousands of notebooks that somehow feel more real to the mother than her own daughter.
The notebooks are her mother’s attempt to hoard memory, to decipher messages from the universe, and she explains to Olivia, “we cannot trace what the world is trying to tell us if we do not remember the message.” But the notebooks take up an inordinate amount of physical space in their home and they also usurp her mother’s attention and time, prompting Olivia to reflect that “notebooks are not mothers.”
In addition to fighting for her mother’s attention, maybe Olivia’s dislike of the notebooks stems from a base difference between Olivia and her mother; her mother wants to decipher the mystery of the world through site, while Olivia wants to chase the mystery with physical feeling. Olivia, like her mother, eventually becomes fixated on hoarding memories — by collecting physical scars. Following an accident where she is hospitalized with severe road rash and broken bones, she starts reopening her cuts and scrapes, somehow hoping to keep her memories alive in the continuous pinch of pain and seep of blood. In many ways, Olivia’s scars function as her own Polaroids.
The oddity of Olivia’s growing mind and her and her mother’s strange habits are captured by Green in a way that makes the first part of the story read like prose poetry, a little dreamy and surreal. Many chapters within the first part are brief, and Green bends and twists phrases to create new ways of speaking or describing the world. Young Olivia is described as “quiet-sharp-elbowed-fearful,” and her mother describes a chest cold Olivia suffered as a baby as an infection of her father’s shadow, and when Olivia and her mother embrace, they “held each other until their bodies ached with the angle of unplanned hugs,” and there are not people inside cars involved in a massive accident, but instead “soft alives.”
Green’s dreamy prose perfectly illustrates Olivia’s life, which is defined by the foggy mystery surrounding Olivia’s obsessive, distracted mother, their sometimes deeply loving, sometimes strained interactions, and the heavy ghost of Olivia’s father built from stories her mother tells, none of which may actually be true.
As the story continues to develop, the world starts to feel wholly Olivia’s, as if it couldn’t exist outside her mind. Observations in Olivia’s world are as mysterious as the world itself and As Olivia grows and experiences life and gathers her scars, her life somehow feels too big and yet simultaneously too small.
The second part of the novel loses a bit of the dreamy mystery as the prose shifts to first person and Olivia leaves her childhood home. In a fit of irony, the narrative closeness of the second section snaps the reader out of the spell Green expertly wove over Olivia and her mother in the first section. Suddenly the story feels too real. We miss Olivia’s strange home, her mother’s dreamy voice her living amongst the collection of notebooks, we miss her obsessive closeness with her friend Natalie, we miss her habit of opening scabs. We get glimpses of these things, and Olivia has mysterious encounters with strangers, and Green’s language continues to enthrall, but Olivia is older now and with age comes monotony, much like the open desert Olivia drives through. All alone in the world, Olivia feels lost, both to herself and to the reader.
In Olivia’s blossoming independence as a legal adult facing the adventure of the open road, Green makes us miss the magic and familiarity of Olivia’s youth. Another wedge that distances Olivia from the reader in the second part of her story is the revelation of Olivia’s growing propensity to confuse memory with dream. While Olivia is on the road, trying to find a way and a home for herself, she calls her childhood best friend to relive the magic of their youth, to find a connection she craves. But her best friend corrects more than a few details in Olivia’s retelling of stories from their days back home, and we are reminded of Olivia’s mother, who spun many stories — often conflicting — about Olivia’s father.
The discovery that, even for all her scar-keeping, Olivia’s memory is still faulty winds up twisting the whole story, and like Olivia scratching at a scab, it begs you to reopen the beginning of the story for reexamination, to scour it for truth and consistency. Perhaps Green twists the ending of Olivia’s story, a story about how we capture and use memory, into a giant question mark to prompt us to examine the validity of our own memories and scars.