Review: ‘Lungfish,’ by Meghan Gilliss

LUNGFISH, by Meghan Gilliss

“Lungfish can go three and a half years without food,” we learn late in Meghan Gilliss’s debut novel. This information has practical use for Tuck, the protagonist, who is obsessed with food — specifically with the act of buying and preparing it. But for Tuck — an unemployed new mother with a husband going through opioid withdrawal — food is not about pleasure; it is only sustenance. In between looking for a job and selling bumper stickers, she feeds both herself and her 2-year-old daughter, Agnes, just enough to keep them both alive.

Set on a remote, unnamed island off the coast of Maine, this lyrical novel (itself called “Lungfish”) often feels like a fairy tale. Having fled their old life in Pittsburgh, the family is squatting in the abandoned home of Tuck’s dead grandmother, “the first Agnes.” There they have no neighbors or access to any form of commerce. They often eat strange food: bladder wrack boiled into a broth, rose hip jam and sometimes, on good days, tender green crabs “the size of nickels.” Addicted to kratom, an herbal extract from Southeast Asia that’s used to mitigate symptoms of opiate withdrawal, Tuck’s husband, Paul, is an absolute failure of a provider. Tuck regards him with barely restrained fury.

Gilliss’s language is an elemental force. A foraged mushroom is not just a mushroom; it is a potential threat. “I spread the mushrooms on the table beneath the hanging bulb, bright caps down, ridged undersides up. The glowing stems stretch upward toward the ceiling. Drops of water slide down the ridges and pool at the pale furls along the edges of the caps. I look at them. You are chanterelles, right? I say.”

It makes sense that Tuck is talking to these possibly poisonous mushrooms, living on a deserted island in the company of only an ailing husband and a toddler. Her dialogue with both animate and inanimate companions is offered without quotation marks. The prose exhibits as little structure as Tuck’s life. Gilliss’s short, artfully titled chapters (“So,” “Catch,” “Familiar,”) sometimes slip effortlessly into something like poetry.

For 300-some pages, though, I was driven mad by frustration with Tuck: Why doesn’t she apply for government assistance? Not until Page 213 does she reveal that she actually has applied, and was turned down because she owns a (used) car. But before that revelation, we see her Googling “Can you apply for public assistance if your address is a private island?” The internet is no help, but “I know the answer to my own question, of course: Not with a straight face. Not without dying first of shame. Not without looking into the eyes of each person you’ve just cut ahead of in line.”

“Lungfish” reads with a slowly building terror. This way of life is not sustainable. Come fall, coastal Maine will be frigid, the island uninhabitable. Not only that, Tuck and her family are illegal occupants in a home that contractually belongs to her father, who is missing, and it will likely be repossessed by the state. She is unable to earn enough money to put a roof over their heads. The book belongs to what could be called a new category of literature — survival parenting — reminiscent of Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” and Stephanie Land’s “Maid.” Only Tuck doesn’t have the tools to claw her way to safer ground, leaving the reader confounded.

Marcy Dermansky is the author, most recently, of “Hurricane Girl.”

LUNGFISH | By Meghan Gilliss | 306 pp. | Catapult | $26