by Joan Silber
(Allen & Unwin, $33)
Reviewed by Yasmina Gillies
Improvement opens with a look in to the lives of Reyna and her aunt Kiki. Kiki is a strong-minded and fiercely independent woman living in New York after a failed marriage in Turkey; Reyna is a solo mother juggling work, parenting and a relationship with boyfriend Boyd who is serving a three month-stint in jail.
Soon after his release, Boyd gets involved in a cross-state cigarette smuggling scheme with his cousin Maxwell and best friend Claude. Reyna agrees to drive for them when their usual driver is unavailable. Boyd is on probation and can't leave the state and Reyna is white, therefore the least likely to arouse suspicion.
But when Reyna withdraws her offer to help at the last minute, her decision reverberates throughout the lives of those around her and faraway strangers she may never meet. Her story is only told at the beginning and end of the book; the rest consists of the stories of others, their connections woven together like the exquisite tapestries Kiki brought back from Turkey.
The award-winning Joan Silber has been celebrated as America's own Alice Munro and indeed, Silber cites the Canadian short-story writer as one of her greatest influences. Though Improvement is a novel, the chapters are easily read as short stories and move backwards and forwards in time in a fashion that reflects Munro's signature style.
While only 256 pages, feels expansive, eloquently spanning lives, generations and locations with a seamless flow. We meet a young mother in Richmond, heartbroken and confused after being jilted by her previously smitten lover without so much as an explanation; a middle-aged truck driver torn between his wife and his ex-wife; three German travellers finding and selling ancient artefacts.
The characters are mostly ordinary and so are there lives but Silber's sharp yet very human touch offers a tender insight into their stories.
Each character comes with their own fascinating backstory, rich in complexity. Though we are reluctant to leave them in their chapters, we quickly become engrossed in the life of each new character. It is the interconnection between these lives that creates a fascinating and ultimately rewarding read.