Back with a Vengeance

A Tiny Upward Shove BY Melissa Chadburn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 352 pages. $27.
Cover of A Tiny Upward Shove

Six-year-old Marina Salles dubs her grandmother’s house on the salt-swept Monterey Peninsula “the Plastic Palace.” Protective runners cover the carpets and kitchen table, encased and safeguarded from spills. The Plastic Palace is a special nickname, something shared between Marina and her mother, Mutya, who are living there with her grandmother, Lola Virgie, in 1982. Love, here, peeks out from corners: from the “sharp tips” of the plastic, from Lola’s routines and regimens. Mutya evades domestic responsibilities, spending weekdays at college and leaving Marina in Lola’s care.

At the Plastic Palace, Lola wrangles Marina’s hair into tight, precise curls with “a spray that made an empty promise of No More Tears.” Marina stifles her prayers for Lola to use more spray and ease the scalp-pulling pain, her mind swirling with worries: Will asking for more spray draw attention to her half-Blackness? Will she seem disrespectful or fussy and lose Lola’s favor? Will holding her tongue simply make the coiffing go by quicker? Sometimes Lola brings her along to the espiritista, a medium who connects the living with the dead, in a pink house filled with “draped velvets and cats and candles.” At one point Lola detects Marina’s stare, and Marina confesses: “Lola, I’m scared of you.” This satisfies her grandmother, who “smacked her hands together in glee then jabbed the air in front of her with her little tight fists and chanted, A killa and a thrilla and a chilla.”

But the real violence is lurking elsewhere—indeed almost everywhere else in Melissa Chadburn’s harrowing debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove. Pages before we hear about the Plastic Palace—on the book’s first page, in fact—we learn that Marina has been murdered brutally, agonizingly, at age eighteen in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, a thousand miles away from Lola’s house. Chadburn traces Marina’s flicker of a life alongside the disturbing trajectory of the Canadian serial killer (based on a real criminal) who murdered her and dozens of other young women. One could very well start a review at the novel’s beginning, mid-femicide, steeped in detritus and death. Or one might start with the novel’s mythological elements. But either approach could risk downplaying the fact that much of the novel dwells in small moments—the details of Marina’s short life and her family’s history—to restore some semblance of a self.

It is also on the first page that we encounter Aswang, a fabled spirit of Philippine mythology, who leaps into Marina’s body at the moment she dies. Stories about the creature’s origins vary by region and depend on who you ask. Early in the novel, a chorus of lolas trade lore: perhaps the aswang arises from a woman’s lovelorn pain, which “tears her in two: the lower half of her body on the ground, her torso and head free to float about and ravage the city”; perhaps the aswang is a hybrid pig-woman who shapeshifts, slipping into another being’s soul; or perhaps the aswang simply resides within old wayward women. In Chadburn’s telling, Aswang fuses with Marina’s screams via tinikling, a folk dance described as “Double Dutch Filipinx Style.”

Chadburn chronicles Aswang’s through-the-generations presence in Marina’s family, starting in the eighteenth century, before finding its latest expression in Marina. Each appearance revives the spirit’s struggle between enacting revenge (sinking teeth into human flesh) and pursuing redemption (completing some quest that its human host had started). Aswang’s possession of Marina’s corpse acts as a framing device in A Tiny Upward Shove, an observational presence rendered in italics at the end of each short unnumbered chapter. The spirit also has access to—and reflects on—Marina’s old thoughts and memories, which Chadburn conveys in clipped sentences across the book’s vivid scenes. But the text always yanks the reader back to Aswang’s diffusely ominous perspective. By anchoring the novel to Aswang’s omniscient, temporally roving bird’s eye view, Chadburn stretches the timeline not only to outlast Marina but also to seek “justice for the forest of missing women.”

The narrative follows a distinctly downward spiral, dizzying and unrelenting. We first find Aswang taking cover in a closet at the ramshackle mobile home of Marina’s killer, Robert “Willie” Pickton. Aswang watches as Willie prepares to find, abduct, and murder another young woman, Josie, visualizing Willie’s car ride to and from his pickup spot in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood. This is where Willie had spotted Marina, too. The streets are “overcome by people,” Aswang recounts, “their backs to the cars, hunched over protecting a small glass vial, cheeks puffed out holding in smoke. . . . She saw slumped sedated people, people in alleyways, people huddled in corners, people selling pork links stolen from the market.” Chadburn’s descriptions repeat and accumulate, a nauseating thrum of glazed eyes, needles, scabs, and rape—a wrecking numbness of people muddling through, sinking, and suffering. 

 Willie also is suffering, and Chadburn draws parallels between his and Marina’s lives. This connection, at times, becomes maddeningly explicit, almost preachy. At the very end of the novel, for instance, Aswang explains, “I could see how closely their lives intertwined, how they were both shaped by the same kinds of hurts and disappointments. . . . Somehow what they all got, in the end, was what they’d hoped for all along—a kind of mercy.” 

Willie grew up on a pig farm with an elder sister and a younger brother who largely ignored him. His mother “had eyes dull with cruelty, that only flickered at moments of deep hate,” and his father beat him. Chadburn’s third-person narration—not Aswang’s first-person here—provides an aching commentary: “nobody said . . . you’re building a ticking time bomb of a person.” When young Willie speaks, his voice comes out as “a thud of heavily tongued sounds.” Classmates tease him. Teachers send him home from school. He drops out. Later—but before Marina and Josie—a woman named Corrin, who was his close friend, rejects his romantic advances. He mounts a rotting horse head on his wall. The pigs, smelly and ubiquitous, certainly don’t help. Chadburn takes care to convey the full arc of Willie’s life, tracking how his violent, disturbing actions brewed and offering readers the option to grant him the grace he did not receive as a child, which he in turn denied Marina.

Like a marble dropped in a cruel Rube Goldberg machine, Marina’s decent begins with an action beyond her control. Mutya has latched onto a self-absorbed drunk boyfriend and is accepted to UCLA, and she uproots Marina from Lola’s, from a warm childhood friendship with the girl across the street, to make a life in Los Angeles. But in LA, bills go unpaid, unwashed dishes pile up; Mutya stays out late dancing and has a new boyfriend, Sam. One horrific night at Sam’s apartment, thirteen-year-old Marina is sexually assaulted by Sam’s brother. Later a fight erupts, and cops arrive on the scene. And then Marina is funneled from child protective services, to a group home for children. Next, to bedbug-infested SROs and the streets. Chadburn creates for Marina an odyssey with no nostos

This is where Marina’s quest—which Aswang ultimately picks up—begins. At a group home called the Pines, Marina meets Alex, who has her own story of unimaginably violent abuse and abandonment. But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. When she gets out of the system, Marina vows to find Alex’s former adoptive mother, Sabina. Now it is up to Aswang to decide whether to kill Willie on the spot or uphold Marina’s promise. Aswang’s choice—and Chadburn’s—calls for a breath, a sense of release.

Melissa Rodman is a writer in New York.