COURTESY PHOTOMarian Palaia's debut novel is set in San Francisco and Montana in the 1980s-90s.

COURTESY PHOTOMarian Palaia's debut novel is set in San Francisco and Montana in the 1980s-90s.

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.

BOOK REVIEW

The Given World

Written by: Marian Palaia

Published by: Simon & Schuster

Price: $25

Pages: 304

IF YOU GO

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

Contact: www.baybookfest.org

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”).

artsbooksdebut novelGiven WorldMarian Palaia

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Deputy public defender Chris Garcia outside the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has… Continue reading

Hyphen hosts a group show at Space Gallery in San Francisco in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Albert Law/Pork Belly Studio)
What’s in a name? Asian American magazine fights to keep its identity

An investor-backed media group laid claim to the moniker of SF’s long-running Hyphen magazine, sparking a conversation about writing over community history

A warning notice sits under the windshield wiper of a recreational vehicle belonging to a homeless man named David as it sits parked on De Wolf Street near Alemany Boulevard on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. A proposed SF Municipal Transportation Agency law would make it illegal for overnight parking on the side street for vehicles taller than seven feet or longer than 22 feet. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fight over ‘poverty tows’ heats up

‘What can we do to ensure the vehicle stays in the hands of the owner?’

Crab fisherman Skip Ward of Marysville casts his crab net out off a pier near Fort Point. (Craig Lee/Special to The	Examiner)
San Francisco came back to life, and we captured it all

Last spring, in the early days of the pandemic, the bestselling authors… Continue reading

Revelers at Madrone Art Bar in the early hours of June 15, 2021 (Courtesy Power Quevedo).
No social distancing at Motown-themed dance party

‘I don’t care how anyone feels, I just want to dance!’

Most Read