Hot Off the Shelf: The Blurry Years by Eleanor Kriseman
I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, but if I didn't love it I wouldn't be telling you about it.
It’s hard enough to make your way in the world as a teenager, but when you have an alcoholic, neglectful single mother, it’s all the more difficult.
Florida native Eleanor Kriseman’s debut novel, The Blurry Years, tells the gritty, compelling story of Cal, who we watch grow from age six to eighteen over the course of the novel, and her mother, Jeanie, in the seedy underbelly of 1970s Florida.
The pair are in near constant transience because Jeanie––whether running from one man to another or one home to another––covers up her series of mistakes by never staying in one place for too long. They go from various coastal towns in Florida to Eugene, Oregon, where Jeannie hopes to make amends with her estranged mother, and back to Florida again, making their tense relationship all the more fragile with each move.
The Florida of the novel is not that of cutesy tourist traps and cheap souvenir shops––it’s the Florida of back alleys and sweaty men from the tiki bar preying on middle school girls. It’s the worst any tourist town has to offer; it’s the Florida that feels like walking into the mouth of a shark. And Jeanie––between her alcoholism, unsteady jobs, poor choice of men, and a never-ending list of injurious decisions––is unable to provide Cal with a stable and safe home.
In many ways, Cal is wise beyond her years. She knows something is wrong, that her mother shouldn’t be drinking herself into a stupor every night and cajoling Cal into drinking with her, but as an adolescent, she lacks the agency to do much about it. She learns there is no middle ground with her mother. Jeanie is either keeping Cal helicopter-close to the point where Cal has no friends or she’s neglecting her altogether, encouraging her to leave the house and not come back until late because Jeanie has another one of her boyfriends over. The more Jeanie drinks, the less she cares about where Cal is or who she’s with.
With her mother’s constant emotional absence, as well as her regular physical and mental absence either from staying out late or passing out drunk, Cal unwittingly seeks parenting from everyone she encounters. The friends who are only a year or two older but are already worldly and world-weary; the adults who drink with her mother but not quite as much as her mother. Everyone but the teachers and guidance counselors who see Cal’s potential but don’t understand that she cannot plan for the future when her mother’s abuse and neglect render her unable to look beyond the immediacy of now.
And through it all, Cal is loathe to leave her mother until the bitter end because, even as abusive as she is, she’s the only family Cal has ever known.
In many ways, the blurriness to which the title alludes is twofold: there’s the literal blurriness of the memories Jeanie loses when she’s passed out drunk, but there’s also a metaphorical blurriness of Cal’s memories. She glosses over parts of her story, particularly the trouble her bad influence friends found themselves in and the middle-aged men she slept with to get what she needed in the moment: money, love, or just companionship.
The Blurry Years isn’t a novel that falls into the old “happily ever after” trope. Cal has a superior intelligence and while that’s certainly an advantage, it’s not enough to save her. Life for her is more complicated and there’s no easy way out of the hole her alcoholic mother recklessly through her into.
Cal is forced to find a way to make it on her own and, true to life, that means sometimes doing things that don’t make sense. She makes bad decisions that will make readers cringe, stomachs knotting in concern. But it’s what Cal has to do because she has little to no good examples of functioning adults in her life.
Even the few caring adults Cal encounters, the kind people who take Cal in without expecting her to labor as a makeshift bartender or give of her young body, are still down on their luck in one way or another. There is Shauna, the childhood best friend of her mother, and Marcus, the brother of her mother’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are Cal’s caretakers at various points in the novel. It’s not that they don’t want to support this smart, directionless young girl, but rather they don’t know how. College is an ambiguity; life beyond hourly wage jobs is beyond their scope of experience.
The Blurry Years is gut-wrenching, twisted, and at times hard to read, but Cal’s voice makes the novel’s magic. Her full first name is Calliope and while the novel never says her mother named Cal after the Greek Muse of heroic poetry, it’s clear Kriseman chose the heroine’s name with intent. Cal is self-assured even in her fear, she’s vulnerable even in her certainty, she’s scattered even in her resolute escape. She doesn’t try to be a hero because, for her, surviving is heroic enough. She doesn’t try to have all the answers because she’s aware there’s so much she doesn’t know––but rather than accepting her fate and following in her mother’s footsteps, she learns and moves on.
For people who don’t share Cal’s experiences, she might seem unrelatable. To those readers, I say be glad you can’t. Sometimes doing the best with what you’re given still looks like a harrowing journey, one filled with things your older, wiser self might look back on in shock and horror. And that’s okay. That’s growth; that’s life.
It may not seem like much, but sometimes that’s all the heroism we can ask for and all the heroism we need.