The Given World is curiously inviting. Not much in the action creates intrigue or question, and yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages. The narrator is a Montana woman named Riley, who physically lives forward into time but remains emotionally stuck in the disappearance of her older brother during the Vietnam War. Something about her, and the way she speaks, kept me reading.
The only time we see Riley and her older brother interacting is in one chapter, on the family farm, months before Mick leaves for college. It’s enough, though, because the scenes perfectly capture nine-year-old Riley enchanted by her protective, wiser brother. He is the center of her world. The day he begins packing for college, Riley throws stones at him from the roof of the house and then falls and injures herself. We understand how desperate she feels. Four years later, in 1968, when Riley is 13, the Army informs the family that Mick is missing in Vietnam.
We next read about Riley when she’s 16 years old, hooked on mescaline and romantically involved with Darrell, a young man from an Indian reservation near the farm. Darrell devastates her with news of his upcoming departure for Vietnam. Riley gets pregnant and leaves the baby with her parents, moving briefly to Missoula and then permanently to San Francisco. There she works as a driver for the San Francisco Chronicle and then as a bartender.
Riley gets caught in a vortex of incomprehensible loss, taking drugs, drinking and pushing people away, perpetuating a cycle of attachment and loss with those who come into her life. The cycle becomes routine, even predictable, which fulfills the thematic purpose of the story but in the middle slows it down, dampening the initial allure; however, the magic returns, when Riley leaves San Francisco.
Author Marian Palaia evokes, without overstatement, the turbulent atmosphere of the Vietnam era, the California drug culture and the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and ‘80s. She also adeptly inserts information about Riley’s brother, Mick, throughout the narrative, so we learn what happened to him — that he dropped out of college to enlist, and he fought with the 25th Infantry in Cu Chi as a tunnel rat.
Toward the end of the book, Riley heads back home to Montana. She makes no excuse to her parents for the many wrong choices she made, recognizing a broken heart for a brother who never returned from Vietnam does not deserve to be judged. In that, we hear her begin to move on, in this wise, debut novel with a hugely satisfying ending.