‘She’s the way I swear and how I let men look at me or not, she’s the bit of steel at my center, either her, herself, or the loss of her. Before that year I was nothing but a soft, formless girl, waiting for someone to come along and tell me who to be...
She lied to me all the time.’
I have begun so many sentences with something along these lines: ‘Julie Buntin’s Marlena is a novel about...’ and then I stumble over horrendous words like, ‘friendship’, ‘girlhood’, and that dreadful phrase ‘coming of age’. Because these are lazy ways that we pigeon hole a novel so that some imagined intended audience will find it. Have you ever heard anyone actually say ‘oo I love a coming of age story’. That’s not how anyone I know thinks. Marlena, is about so much and to write about it as a book concerned with intense female formative friendships misses about eleven other angles from which it speaks.
So, where to begin. The narrator Cat, or Catherine, or Cath, depending on her age and with whom she is speaking, is spurred by a phone call to remember the year in which she moved to Silver Lake, Michigan, aged fifteen, and became best friends with this torrent of beauty, pills and sorrow, Marlena. Who knows if they would have remained friends forever, probably not, but Cat never gets to find out for sure - Marlena drowns. Now she is in some way always with Cat.
Though Cat claims, looking back, not to have been sucked in by a false sense of glamour in this dark world, I absolutely was. A kind of heady heat seems to lift away from the cold Michigan weather on the pages. I was drawn along feeling the highs and lows as the drug-fuelled young Marlena and the guilty alcoholic adult Cat suffer them. Cat’s claim made me wonder about her own memory, what to trust or question, leading me to adopt a frantic search for clues as to the truth of each character’s story. Buntin drew me in hopelessly so that even when she describes the squalor in which Marlena lives, the grease settled into her hair, the overpowering scent of her breath, I saw how Cat and her brother Jimmy and so many others became obsessed with this liminal creature.
I say liminal despite how Marlena shapes Cat’s life entirely, despite her centrality to all the characters in the novel. For, really she occupies the spaces in between and is never able to become herself, even if Cat admires her for appearing so at ease in her own skin. In high school, she is ostracised as a junky - no surprises there in the cruelty of other teenagers. At home she is somewhere between sister and mother to her little brother. Horrifyingly it seems she may also fulfil the role of wife to her father - this is never made explicit but one starts to assume the absolute worst, certainly she plays the role of his punching bag. She is never allowed to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, to have that time to grow up - she certainly is abused by her father’s associate, Bolt, whose dark shadow envelops every unspoken part of the novel. It’s fascinating that Cat talks about Marlena trading sexual favours with him for pills when the reader sees that Marlena has no real choice in this - there’s no real trade here. Marlena’s ‘home’ is a barn on the physical and metaphorical edge of society and civilisation. Her home is not really hers and not really a home and even her own physical space, her body, is taken away from her by her father, by Bolt, by the people who eye her like something to be possessed or like trash or both.
Now tell me this is a book about girlhood. Marlena never gets to be a child.
One of the novel’s lenses is blame. Cat asks herself repeatedly why she didn’t do more, or do anything really. She points out that she wasn’t just a bystander but a part of it in the same breath that she realises there is no such thing as being just a bystander: ‘The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt... And anyway, I touched.’
This is what makes Cat such an enchanting narrator. She is wise, she gets it, but only some of the time. She’s also a woman just screwing up all the time, as we all do, unable to accept herself and berating herself for past mistakes for which we want to forgive her. While she questions why she didn’t try to stop Marlena from taking another handful of pills or from going to Bolt or from accepting her life as it was, I was despairing at the lack of someone to help Cat deal with this. She refuses the excuse of ‘I was fifteen’ but Buntin draws us into a world where we can understand that she was just fifteen. We understand how quickly Cat’s own life changed in that year, how hard and fully she fell almost in love with this creature, how the story can’t go any other way. There’s a really telling moment in Cat’s reaction to finding out that Marlena’s dad might be arrested (he’s another one cooking meth): while I was thinking ‘finally’ she is furious with the person who has caused this because of how it will disrupt Marlena’s life and that of her little brother. She thinks this should be Marlena’s choice, as if Marlena has that freedom. I felt this conflict throughout - both being drawn close enough to the situation to see things as the young Cat does and then being separated from it by the adult Cat where Buntin gives the reader the chance to question how she sees things.
At the beginning of the book, Cat describes an occasion when Marlena refuses to slow down the van they have stolen, speeding up instead, and she fears for their lives. When Marlena does at last slow down before throwing them into Lake Michigan, she begins to sing Joni Mitchell’s California. I love how this song throws the reader off. Cat quotes the lyrics about kissing a sunset pig, about coming home. There’s hope. It’s one of the Joni Mitchell songs I don’t cry most of the way through. I feel as though Buntin expects that we will know the song and what struck me is that she doesn’t quote the repeated lyric: ‘will you take me as I am?’ But it is that lyric, that question and all its sentiment that the characters are asking, that the book asks, that we all ask all of the time. The opening of this novel is marked by a song about home. Cat has just had her sense of what that is destroyed. Marlena, we imagine, never had it.
Julie Buntin’s Marlena is a book about regret, blame, obsession, addiction, beauty, poverty, sexuality, acceptance and yes, youth too. It is a tragedy in which Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac serve as the chorus, in which hubris abounds and Marlena is its victim, in which the narrator seeks catharsis in telling her story and gives her audience but a little. It is a young woman singing a springing song of homecoming when we know she will never have that. It is a young woman keeping her best friend alive every time she drinks to her.
‘Raise your glass. Drink to trying, like this, to bring her back.’