It’s not what anyone who plans to get married soon wants to hear, but there are a million ways a wedding can go wrong. Missing rings, late-delivered cakes, drunken relatives: the potential for disaster is always there, just a slip of the mind or a bad decision away. But for Evie, the narrator of Crissy Van Meter’s Creatures, there are two problems with her upcoming ceremony: A dead whale has washed up on the island where she lives, and the smell is less than ideal. Also, her fiance, a fisherman, has gone to work on a boat in a storm, and is presently unaccounted for.

Evie, though, has seen worse. Abandoned by her mother at a young age and raised by a drug-dealing father, she’s more than used to things not going her way. She’s a memorable character, and Creatures, Van Meter’s excellent debut novel, is a beautiful look at how we navigate the pain and heartbreak that comes with being human.

Shortly before her wedding, Evie is surprised by the sudden appearance of her mother, who’s been in and out ⁠— mostly out ⁠— of her life since she was a child. Evie finds her latest arrival decidedly unwelcome:

Today, I do not want to see my mother, because today, she will compare everything to this rotting whale. Our lives. Our sadness. Our dead. I haven’t seen her in three years. Haven’t heard her voice in two.

As her mother helps her prepare for the wedding (assistance that Evie doesn’t necessarily want), Evie reflects on her childhood on Winter Island, off the Southern California coast, where her father worked a series of odd jobs — many involving the sale of Winter Wonderland, a strain of weed that her dad has made into the stuff of pothead legend. “Sometimes we had money; sometimes we didn’t,” Evie explains. “Sometimes there were storms, and sometimes sunburns. We lived on fake money, famous money, and drug money, and always, it was just enough to never leave the island.”

Her dad, Evie allows, might have tried his best, or close to it, but he too frequently fell victim to his own demons, most of which were substance related. Despite the success of his strain of weed, “There was never enough money from the drugs, because he gave them away, lost some, flushed some, or smoked and snorted it all himself.”

She also considers her relationship with her absentee mother, who “wasn’t crazy; she just didn’t want me as much as I wanted her.” She takes her mother’s reappearance somewhat in stride, but can’t help but notice that it’s part of a pattern:

Her moments of empathy are fleeting, and I’ve never figured out why and how they appear. Maybe sorcery. She’s never been much of a mother, because she left me with Dad, and the times she did come back to this island, she offered pockets full of eclectic toys and trinkets, and then left within days, sometimes hours.

Creatures jumps back and forth in time, with chapters exploring Evie’s childhood and ones taking place after her marriage to the fisherman, Liam, a kind man who’s nonetheless capable of hurting Evie. The inverse is true as well: “I have never known the kind of love that lasts forever,” she admits. “I’m always looking for a way out.” This narrative technique works spectacularly well ⁠— by rejecting a strictly linear storyline, Van Meter seems to highlight that lives don’t happen in a straight line; we’re all a collection of past and present, and we never really escape what’s happened to us years ago.

Van Meter also displays a real talent for crafting characters that feel real, with impulses both good and bad, and the capacity to love and to hurt. Particularly memorable is Evie’s mother, deeply flawed but not irredeemable, “indifferent and aloof and always looking to the sky.” Van Meter has a keen eye for family dynamics, capturing the love and resentment that sometimes exist side by side in a family.

Creatures is frequently heartbreaking, but never mawkish. The novel contains several interstitial chapters, written in the second person and framed as answers to questions about marine life, that delve deep into Evie’s psyche. It’s a risky technique that pays off; the reader discovers a more sensitive, less guarded side of Evie: “You could end up like the loneliest whale in the sea if you are not careful. If you live on an island with a mother who doesn’t want you and a father who wants too much, you might scream and no one will hear you.”

Van Meter is a wonderful writer, and her novel is so beautifully written, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s a debut. Creatures is a gift of a book, an intelligent and empathetic look at how it feels to love and to suffer, to live with the urge “to keep going away, alone, without anyone who can hurt and ruin and break and die.”

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