The Golden State
When San Franciscan academic Daphne returns one morning to collect her daughter, Honey, from day care, it is because she has decided to flee. A student has been killed in a traffic accident in Turkey and she feels responsible. Her husband is stuck in Istanbul with a green card issue, which has left her solo parenting for the past eight months. And her job, at an institute of Islamic studies, seems to involve her co-workers’ workloads as well as her own. Fleeing to a family mobile home in the high desert seems the only option. These problems will follow her to northern California, and she will have Honey full-time, but maybe spending time with her daughter will help. Maybe she’ll stop thinking about death so much.
At its heart, The Golden State, Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, is less about the narrative this decision puts in train than the texture of the 10 days that unfurl before Daphne and Honey in Altavista. As a portrait of the daily struggles of parenting, The Golden State is vivid and immersive. Kiesling reproduces the cumulative effect of endless menial tasks through the use of long, comma-light sentences that log them as mechanically, and anxiously, as they are performed: “And then I tugged the onesie over her head looked at the time put my own head in my hands and sobbed for thirty seconds.”
These tasks are only mindless up to a point, of course, because there are always attendant risks. Kiesling’s sentences embody this dread, the sense of impending doom ratcheting up with each task added to the stream. Like Daphne, you start to wonder how parents can do this day after day without something going horribly wrong. How is it that any of us makes it through – as children or parents? Thankfully, in this case, doom never quite arrives, but things certainly get shaky.
In The Millions, where she is a contributing editor, Kiesling has written in admiration of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, a work that takes the logging of parental minutiae to extremes. Kiesling’s novel is more conventional; it relents to a narrative arc that is satisfyingly neat, if a little predictable. But the story is almost beside the point. Daphne’s endless days with Honey capture the intensity in the tedium of parenting, and it is this that keeps The Golden State compelling.
Text, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Lydia Kiesling, The Golden State". Subscribe here.