A surprise of a novel that with insight and heart shows how we all connect.
Improvement by Joan Silber is one of the two finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award (Best Novel) that I haven’t read. So here is me reading it.
Improvement is the story of Kiki and Reyna. When she was young Kiki went to Turkey, got married, spent nearly a decade in the country and, when the marriage didn’t work out, came back home to New York. Reyna is Kiki’s niece. She is in her twenties, has a son named Oliver and is in a relationship with Boyd who, when the novel opens, is serving a three-month sentence in Riker’s prison for dealing dope. Kiki does not like Boyd. Yes, she might be the crazy Aunt who reads Aristotle and knows that Saladin (he who fought the Crusades) ate hummus, but she’s been around the block enough times to recognise a bad seed and as far as she’s concerned Boyd is the quintessential bad seed. Reyna, though, isn’t stupid. She’s fully cognisant that Boyd has his deficiencies, but she loves him. She describes it poignantly here:
The novel is undoubtedly about repercussions, a series of intimately linked short stories focusing on those people caught in the web of a single decision. It’s a lovely conceit. I can’t remember the last time I read a story that moved it’s main characters to the background so it could focus on those affected by the actions and decisions of the protagonists. It’s like starting with James Bond then halfway through the narrative focussing on the family of a henchman Bond has killed.
Improvement continues to surprise me with its shifts in focus. I’d guessed that the chapters making up the bulk of the novel, each featuring an ‘incidental’ character, would be linked back to Reyna’s choice. But Silber pulls the rug out – which is funny because Kiki, in Turkey and then later in the States, sells Turkish rugs… anyway – by going back in time when Kiki lived in Turkey,, married to Osman. At one point Kiki meets three German tourists who, like Boyd and his cigarette bandits, smuggle items of value. These tourists want Kiki to join them but similar to Reyna she makes a choice, in this instance to stay with Osman (although we know it’s not going to last). Kiki’s story, which charts her return to America, is then unexpectedly followed by a chapter from the perspective of our German smugglers.
The Gist Of It
That was an unexpected delight. Not in the sense that I expected to hate Improvement but unexpected in that the novel regularly surprised me. What I thought was going to be a story about the relationship between an eccentric aunt and her wayward niece (not that I’m judging) becomes a suite of linked short stories, all of them leading back to either Kiki, the aunt, or Reyna, the niece. The decisions they make have profound and subtle repercussions on people they know and those they don’t.
Silber, though, isn’t just interested in the butterfly effect, each person whether it’s Darisse, who never finds out that Claude died in a car crash or Teddy who drove the truck that ended up killing Claude, are given their own fully fleshed arcs. They are not just defined by the decisions made by Reyna and Riki who they never meet.
Improvement is a thought-provoking choice for a title as it implies that for the characters in the novel life gets better. For the most part that’s the case but it’s gradual, marginal, moments of happiness in amongst the debt, the anxieties, the unfulfilled relationships. It’s best summed up in this period of reflection from Teddy, the truck driver, during the Thanksgiving meal:
Improvement is a vivid, layered portrait of strangers, friends and family tangled together by the thinnest of circumstances, the ripples of a single choice.