28 Feb / A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn [in Shelf Awareness]
Melissa Chadburn’s electrifying debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, opens with gruesome death: “Dying hurts like f*ck-all everything.” The description comes from “Aswang,” a shape-shifting creature of Filipinx folklore, who knows “about the slow agonies of death” because she reanimates the body of 18-year-old Marina, “murdered on a pig farm in a place called Port Coquitlam,” the penultimate victim of a serial killer. Aswang serves as partial narrator to a story that mainly belongs to Marina, who “lived a cleaner life” until she “fell through the crack between the world you know and the worlds you do not know.” Other liminal voices weave in and out.
Marina’s Lola (grandmother in Tagalog) ensured a happy childhood in Monterey, Calif. Mutya, Marina’s Filipina mother, was a teenager when she was briefly married to Marina’s Black father and Marina was born. Unreliable men continue to determine Mutya’s life. Yet another boyfriend convinces her to move to Los Angeles, separating Marina from Lola’s nurturing protection. Too soon, Marina becomes a statistic of neglect and violence, landing at the Pines, “a place for kids to live out the rest of their time as wards of the court.” Her above-bunkmate Alex becomes her guide to the group home.
Alex’s childhood couldn’t have been more heinous and yet her tragedies could so easily have been avoided: five months into a perfectly matched adoption, Alex’s birthmother reclaimed her, only to enable three years of torture so vile that the toddler was initially unrecognizable upon discovery in a tiny, locked closet. Marina, one year older than Alex, emancipates earlier from the court system. Her parting promise to find Alex’s adoptive mother leads Marina to Vancouver, where no good deed goes unpunished – deception, drugs, slavery, slaughter await – until Aswang can finally wreak overdue revenge.
A warning feels necessary here: indeed, the violence is graphic and relentless. And yet bearing witness seems equally mandatory: Chadburn’s concluding author’s note reveals that her fiction is “inspired by all-too-real events”; this horror is reality, especially for girls and women of color, in that the novel’s murderer has an actual counterpart (with the same name) who admitted to butchering 49 victims. As an activist, Chadburn – -who experienced foster care herself – has reported extensively on the child welfare system, grounding her novel in what she’s seen, what children and adults have (not) survived, what the voiceless cannot say. Writing with remarkable grace, even surprising moments of transporting joy, Chadburn creates a miraculous literary platform to claim these missing stories.
Shelf Talker: Neglected and lost children, vicious abuse, and serial murder are subjects of Melissa Chadburn’s sensational, terrifying debut novel that remarkably gives voice to the missing and murdered.