Marian Palaia’s ‘Given World’ captures life’s unpredictability

Finding peace is a little like going to war in Marian Palaia’s debut novel, “The Given World.” Riley is a 30-something woman in search of her older brother Mick —”or his bones or if not his actual bones, then his spirit, and anything else he could have left behind” — long after he failed to return from the Vietnam War.

Mick left when Riley was age 9 and her life ever since has been a kind of psychological boot camp. From pratfalls off the roof of their Montana home to relationships she breaks off right as they solidify to desperate moves toward vast spaces like the Pacific Ocean or the nebulousness of homelessness, drinking too much and sleeping with too many men, Riley is out to create a casualty. At the very least, ironically, she seeks separation from painful separations.

Along the way, she creates Slim, a son she leaves behind until it’s time to come home and stand on firm, landlocked ground.

In a story mostly told from Riley’s tragic, but never self-pitying viewpoint, Palaia displays a deft hand as a first-time novelist, mingling chapters from Riley’s mother, a lover and strangers’ perspectives with Riley’s blistering and blunt accounts.

Throughout, there’s the feel of an old Western novel, but one cast into contemporary light by Riley’s gender — she’s a girl with “half-assed dreams” to become a diesel mechanic, working on machines “that could move mountains.”

Vivid descriptions of San Francisco neighborhoods in the 1980s and ’90s pair up perfectly with poetic portrayals of Montana’s night sky. (“The Milky Way appears painted on. It is as sharp, as delineated, as the stripe on a skunk,” she writes.) Palaia is skilled at mixing bitter and sweet — an uplifting ending is loosely constructed and leaves a reader floating in a way that feels entirely grounded in how it captures life’s unpredictability.

Palaia wrote what is now the third chapter of the book, “Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes,” as a short story, long before attempting to develop “The Given World.” A graduate of the master’s of fine arts program at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the master’s program in creative writing at San Francisco State University, she lives in San Francisco and Missoula, Mont.


The Given World

Written by: Marian Palaia

Published by: Simon & Schuster

Price: $25

Pages: 304


New Voices, New Stories: Stellar Debuts Not to Be Missed

Presented by Bay Area Book Festival

When: 2 p.m. June 7

Where: Brower Center, Kinzle Room, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley

Tickets: Free


Note: Palaia appears on the “New Voices” panel with Jan Ellison (“A Small Indiscretion”), Aline Ohanesian (“Orhan’s Inheritance”), Angela Pneuman (“Lay It On My Heart”), Andrew Roe (“The Miracle Girl”), moderated by Bill Petrocelli (“The Circle of Thirteen”).