Thursday, June 30, 2022

Book Review: Deep in Providence by Riss M. Neilson

Deep in Providence is a masterful debut novel from Riss M. Neilson, following the lives of three girls, Miliana, Inez, and Natalie, as they grieve over the loss of the fourth member of their tight quartet, Jasmine. Each one of them had a very different relationship with Jas, and misses her intensely, but in her own unique way. The reader never gets to see Jasmine in action, unless you count some of the supernatural or magical elements of the story, but we do get an exhaustive account of her character through the memories of the girls. It's as if each one knew a different side of Jasmine, and their memories may not sync up together, but they do provide an account of a complex person, and give clear reasons why this trio, which used to be a quartet, grieves her the way that they do. In fact, at points in the novel, through memories and flashbacks, we see accounts of Jasmine that almost contradict each other, as if each girl is remembering a different person. It might sound as if it makes the novel confusing, but I promise, it's a beautiful rendering of the way we remember our loved ones. This is what it means to be human, having complex, even contradictory facets to our personalities. Our parents know us as a very different person than our friends do, and our siblings, and our teachers, team members, and anyone else who has even a slightly different relationship with is. Even in a tight circle of friends, like the one depicted in the novel, there are bound to be nuances in the way we co-exist and little touches to our bonds that are different from the others in the same group. Not only that, but the way we remember a person after they are gone can often be very flawed. We choose to hold on to some memories and banish others, and end up with our own personal interpretation of the deceased, which may or may not align with someone else's interpretation, or even the actual truth of the person's life. Deep in Providence captures these complexities brilliantly, giving us a nuanced characterization of a girl we never actually meet.

Something else that kept me engaged with the novel from the beginning is the powerful theme of grief throughout. Each of the girls is grieving Jasmine in her own way, but also grieving other people in their lives as well - Miliana her Papa, Inez her father, and Natalie her mother. Even if the loved one is not dead, like in Inez' and Natalie's case, they are so distant or out or reach as to trigger the same loss and sadness. Sometimes, having a loved one who has changed so much or who is so physically distant can trigger the same feelings of grief that actual death does, grief for the person we knew, now lost to sickness, addiction, incarceration, or deportation. Deep in Providence deals with all of these issues through the theme of grief in a very touching way. The three main characters go through the stages of grief in very clear ways. They pass quickly through denial and then anger, camp out in bargaining for much of the novel, then deep depression and finally healing acceptance. At each stage, the girls' distinct personalities shine through, and while they grieve differently, any reader will be able to find an anchor for their own experiences of grief and loss.

In addition to the powerful theme of grief, I loved the focus on magic and the internal conflict it provokes in each of the girls. I came across this novel through the pre-order hype on Instagram, and immediately gravitated to the magical aspects of the story. After reading it, I loved how Neilson not only depicted the girls' pursuit of magic as a means of bargaining their way through grief, but also the conflict between their religious faith and the magical actions they have to take in preparation to essentially bring their beloved friend back from the dead. As people of faith, especially Christians, since that's my experience, it can be so difficult to trust in a God who allows such inexplicable suffering and loss in our lives. Each of the girls comes from a different cultural background, and each with some sense of magic in their families, but also a strong sense of Christian faith. At many points in the novel, this faith comes into direct conflict with their desire to subvert the grief process or reverse what God has wrought in their lives, and this struggle really brought back memories of the ways that I've dealt with grief, and still do. We may not all turn to magic, but we often find other ways to fight fate or try to rebel against nature or God when things don't go our way. In the novel, the girls face an ethical dilemma in bringing back Jasmine. They justify doing increasingly harmful things to others, or at least risking harm to innocent people in the hopes of mastering the art of magic enough to reach Jasmine's spirit. As someone who knows that dilemma, who has felt the kind of anger and depression that makes you so single-minded in your suffering that you forget that other people have their own lives and loves and losses, this connected me to the characters in a powerful way.

Overall, I loved the novel and can't wait to see what else Neilson publishes. The writing is beautiful - haunting and touching at the same time, and the story does a a great job of presenting very common human experiences through the lens of magic. By the end, I felt both connected to the girls and afraid for them as they pursued a path that could only lead to more heartbreak for them all, and devastating fallout for the people around them.