I spent my childhood working at my family’s small, cabin-court motel in upstate New York, a place our guests were always calling “rustic” and “charming,” but that I thought of as a deceiving trap in which I was frustratingly caught. It was one thing to be an independent, self-sufficient adult treating yourself to a long weekend out of town, and it was entirely another to be a child chambermaid, cleaning up after strangers instead of enjoying summer vacation with your friends. I spent most of my time fantasizing about a life elsewhere, saving my money and counting the days until I would graduate from high school and be free.
Leila Murray, the narrator of Laura Kasischke’s first novel, Suspicious River, is also trapped—in a dull tourist town, a bad marriage, a web of horrific childhood memories—and like I once did, she spends her days at a motel, waiting on strangers and saving up for some as-yet-undetermined future purchase of escape. But if I thought I would see my experience mirrored in Leila’s, the opening line of the book set me straight: “The first time I had sex with a man for money, it was September—still like summer, but the heat in the motel room was on and it seemed to coat my throat with dust.” At 24, Leila has begun sleeping with guests at the Swan Motel for the cost of a room—60 bucks—and then resuming her post behind the desk as if nothing had happened.
It takes the course of the novel to learn why she’s doing it; at times her reason seems as simple as boredom, and at other times it’s as murky as the water of the eponymous river that runs behind the motel. But one thing is for sure: It’s not about the growing store of cash Leila keeps hidden from her husband, Rick. “The money. It’s what anyone would think I was doing this for. But the money was nothing. The money just bulged out of my jewelry box, green and dry. I only thought about the money when I added more money to it.”
Ultimately, there are very few places where my motel experience and Leila’s overlap; after all, I was a child and she is a young woman. But the book is drenched with a feeling that is all too familiar: the helplessness of being human. We exert our negligible power where we can. In my case, I bossed around my little brother, the only person who was lower in the family caste system than I was. Leila, on the other hand, explores the nuances of sexual control: “…he kept one hand pressed at my neck the whole time, one on my wrist. I opened my eyes, and he stared into them while I stared out. It didn’t hurt at all, though I supposed from the look on his face that he was hoping it would.”
Leila wants to feel something, and it is through her encounters with these men at the Swan Motel that she conducts her search for sensation. The present-day action of the story is interlaced with moments from her childhood—painful interactions with her mother, also an adulterer, and sexual experiences with both boys and men, ranging from confusing to criminal. Soon you begin to see how Leila Murray became the young woman standing behind that motel desk, and even if you can’t recognize yourself in her, you start to comprehend her search. She wants what we all want: to feel alive: “I’d search around my chest sometimes at night before I fell asleep, feeling for my heart,” she says, “but there was never anything there.”
As I billowed bleach-white sheets over motel beds as a kid, I felt I was in a sort of coma, waiting to wake up and start my real life. I never had trouble finding my heart in my chest; it was straining at the bars of my ribcage, clamoring for the world. Looking back, I realize I was fortunate to have parents who fostered my ambition and creativity, who also loved books and music and travel. Deep down I knew that my time working at my family’s motel was just a fraction of a long life, and that knowledge sustained me until I became an adult.
Leila has no such knowledge, no such promise of release, and being an adult offers little relief from the monotony of her life: “There was nothing I could do, I thought, but what I always did.” But this doesn’t mean nothing happens in the book—quite the opposite, in fact. Leila enters into a relationship with a motel guest named Gary Jensen, who ultimately becomes her pimp. She believes she is in love with Gary, and you follow her through the book’s pages the way you would a sleepwalking person through a darkened house, trying to ensure she doesn’t hurt herself. But you are powerless; you can only watch her step into one dangerous situation after another, and still you cannot look away. It is all leading to a tremendous, violent climax: “Suddenly, the diamond-shaped window in the front door fills brilliantly with light. Headlights. The sound of motors, killed, car doors slamming. But as I walk toward the beaming diamond in that front door, it goes black, and I think maybe I’ve finally bought what I’ve been saving that money to buy.”
I won’t lie; this is a brutal book. It is sad, grisly, confusing and hard, particularly as a woman. It is the kind of book that opens up something deep inside of you, something that maybe you’d prefer to keep shut. I am so grateful that someone suggested I read it, but I hesitate to recommend it to others. Would they see what I see?
There is incomparable beauty in these pages—descriptions that made me dumb with awe and dialogue that crushed something in the center of my body like a paper bird. I can see the fictitious Suspicious River, Michigan, in my mind, with its cows, “stiff as junked stoves and freezers at the dump,” and swans, “gluttonous, and shameless as greedy, drunken angels at a feast.” This is a fierce and entrancing read with, believe it or not, a hopeful ending—a book about our pursuit of the thing that we need to survive, the very core of us: “a bloody nest in your chest, soggy, like something dredged out of a river: Your heart, you never want it to stop.”
Paperback: 271 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 1996