A bird flies into the drain valve of a water heater. A girl named Marina tries to release it, but she can’t. Seeing her struggle—and failing to free the bird herself—the girl’s mother punches the creature’s feet. Its leg snaps, and then its wing breaks. The bird falls and dies. When the girl asks why, her mother replies: “Just what we have to do, sweetie. Help a hurt thing on its way—a tiny upward shove.”
It’s a potent moment, and a potent gesture. The cruelty or kindness, the casual shock of the mother’s pragmatic act of violence, gives Melissa Chadburn’s debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, its title.
It also tells us something of the book’s unflinching point of view.
Like the bird, after all, Marina, who is Filipina, finds herself trapped without hope. She is the protagonist of Chadburn’s novel, but not its narrator. That role is fulfilled by the aswang Marina beckons as the novel begins. In Filipino mythology, aswangs are vengeful, supernatural creatures, about whom every lola, or grandmother, tells stories. They are called into being in three ways, including if the aswang is in your ancestral lineage and you have been interrupted in the middle of a quest.
Marina summons the aswang as a teenager, when she is being raped and murdered by a man named Willie Pickton. Willie, we learn from an author’s note, is based on a real-life serial killer. Upon assuming Marina’s body, the aswang senses her want, noting a balance between gravity and light. “When I passed through the infinite thickness of time,” the aswang observes, “that light force was pulling me forward. Strands of love and desire. Want is for the living.… What she wanted in that moment before her death was greater than this hunger to murder Willie.”
We learn of Marina’s death before discovering what led to Willie’s act of violence. The rest of the novel is thoughtfully episodic, structured as a series of little and big horrors that build to a devastating present. The aswang was first called by Marina’s forebears in the Philippines in the 1700s, and this is the last generation to which she has ties. Chadburn whirls us through the histories of these maternal ancestors as a way of setting up her character’s childhood. After being raped by her mother’s boyfriend’s brother, Marina must navigate the foster care system alone until, at her group home, she meets someone with whom she forges a tender relationship.
The novel’s lyrical viscosity and stunning rhythms are immediately apparent. “Dying hurts like fuck-all everything,” Chadburn writes. “You can feel all the pains, the hurts, the joys, the cries of all the world. There’s no numbing dope, no dick wows, no kitty kitty yum yum, just a floodlight on all the world’s needs. Death is a dump.” This is writing that announces immediately it will pull no punches and then abides by the rubric it has fashioned for itself. Brutality is intertwined with humor and some crackling linguistic effects. Even at its most pitiless, the narrative maintains a steadfast frankness, keeping a “floodlight” on the cruelty that is often directed at children. Any opportunity for sentimentality is cut short by brusque matter-of-factness. Marina’s life is explored in visceral, embodied language, but so too is Willie’s—there are no jump cuts away.
A novel this forthright about child abuse, rape, addiction, poverty, and murder is, of course, marked by bleakness and a justified anger at a world in which girls and women, especially poor ones, face grave sexual violence and injustice, too often perpetuated by men who are themselves neglected or abused. It is hard to look away but also painful to continue.
Finally, however, A Tiny Upward Shove is powerful not so much because of the harrowing intensity of its trauma but because of its dagger-sharp voice and Chadburn’s startling talent for calling up base notes of death and decay within not only vibrant sentences but also longer narrative arcs. Like many brilliant works of fiction, its artistry lies in the fusing of linguistic and plot choices with enduring motifs. The book is marked by both tremendous knowledge and astonishing imagination: in her critique of our world and its injustices, Chadburn enacts the ferocity we imagine an aswang would have.
It’s extraordinary, propulsive: unputdownable, as they say.
And while Chadburn’s debut possesses a kind of doomed, spellbinding inevitability, it also lends a flicker of light, a barely perceptible flutter of heart, to something that seemed broken, wounded like the bird in the heater, beyond repair.•