Emily Kiernan’s debut novel Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014) begins like any good mystery tale: a woman driving alone on a dark road. The woman is breathless. She is scanning the pavement. This is Jane, twenty-one years old, speeding down the Oregon coast, into California, fleeing a house and all that happened to her inside that house. Great Divide is a poetic exploration of the devastating effects of abuse. It is also a travelogue, a novel of the road.
The first thing one will notice about Kiernan’s book is the lush prose. Sentences that lap, slosh, run into one another. Kiernan has created a dystopian world, wholly believable, in which the reader, much like Jane, is lost on the highway, plowing ahead, rain smeared across the windshield as a flood consumes the west coast.
Jane’s trip is not aimless. Her destination: Kansas. The geographic center of the U.S. A prairie in which she will meet her lover, Johnny, and they will marry. On the second day of her journey, she spreads a map, charts her route: hwy 1, the slow “dangle over the water.” No matter that the 1 is flooded, side roads plugged with mud. She drives. Coastal cliffs give way to soused flatlands. She must change her direction again. Another highway, dry and cracked. She follows no logic but the law of her body: keep moving. The flood follows her. The literal deluge of her childhood.
Throughout the novel, Kiernan’s characters slip effortlessly between the past and the present. During Jane’s visit with her mother several chapters later, we learn a great deal about Jane’s past. We also learn about the mother who saw too much: the father alone with Jane fondling the hem of her nightgown. The fact her mother witnessed the transgression, however, did not help Jane. The bald fact: the mother left, packing her bags and Jane’s little sister, Mara, into the family car. As an adult, Jane must not only accept the fact her mother left her with her father, but also took Mara, and that the life her Mother carved out for Mara included a loving stepfather and a garden of azaleas. Jane accepts this fact as she accepts all the others: she turns off one road onto the next until finally she reaches the open highway.
For Jane there is no present that is not wedded to the past. The very structure of Kiernan’s chapters limns this fact. Through the use of overlapping and fragmented narratives, Kiernan forces the reader to slide between the trauma of Jane’s childhood—told through italicized vignettes—and her self-fashioned release. The long sentences, richly embroidered with detail, create a knitted atmosphere in which the air is not tense so much as humid: it is difficult to breathe. The reader can’t catch their breath. The dense prose mimics the experience of being trapped inside Jane’s particular headspace. It is no mistake that Kiernan wrote Jane’s story in second person: the reader is never not inside Jane’s mind, her body. Jane becomes us. It is you, not Jane, who is forced, finally, to ask the essential question: is “moving on” inherently an act of release, of healing? You, like Jane, already know: the trauma Kiernan explores through the text cannot be forgotten or rectified no matter how far one wanders.
At the end of Great Divide, Kiernan offers no easy resolutions to the characters’ stories. The reader is left unmoored. As is Jane. Her love for Johnny has not saved her. It has simply created a rupture, a possibility. In this sense, the pleasure of Jane’s journey isn’t marked by her transformation into a happy, fully integrated woman so much as she realizes that experiencing happiness in her own body is a possibility at all. She pursues it doggedly. As if the very weather depended upon her liberation. And it does.