“There is a dead whale. It rolls idly in the warm shallows of this island, among cartoonish sea animals with tentacles, suction cups, and goopy eyes,” narrator Evangeline tells us in the opening of Crissy Van Meter’s debut novel, Creatures. “This island” is Winter Island, a fictional island off the Southern California coast that resembles Catalina Island, and where main character Evangeline, or Evie, has lived almost her whole life.
Winter Island is a place for summer people, fishermen, rock stars, druggies and other assorted ne’er-do-wells. It’s also a slightly wild place, with orcas and dolphins within sight, its dormant volcano, abandoned research buildings and frequent storms. As the novel opens, Evie is about to get married, her alcoholic dad has died, and after many years away, her mother has returned to Winter Island for the wedding. And now the dead whale in the harbor has made its smelly presence known to all.
The novel’s narrative follows a nonlinear, nonchronological structure, returning first to Evie’s peripatetic childhood and adolescence. Evie’s dad, a loving but flawed single parent, tries and fails repeatedly to quit drinking and doing drugs, which puts Evie and her dad at the mercy of friends and acquaintances. Sometimes they are homeless. The narrative then leaps forward to Evie’s married years, back to her youth, then forward to the wedding weekend. In between are short interludes that offer the feeling of lyrical essays. The novel’s structure is intriguing and unusual, but it can be hard to follow.
Creatures is filled with evocative writing, particularly in the descriptions of the natural landmarks familiar to Evie, which witness essential moments in her growing up. Likewise, Evie’s first-person narration is vivid and close, although some scenes, and some of the novel’s other characters, seem underdeveloped. For instance, I wanted more of a sense of Evie’s friend Rook and Rook’s son Tommy, and a clearer sense about Evie’s dad’s early death.
Still, with its beautiful writing and redemptive ending, Creatures is an imaginative, atmospheric debut.