The climax of Kinsky’s quietly powerful novel—a pair of earthquakes that hit northeastern Italy in 1976—happens before the book begins, but its aftershocks continue. In a mesmerizing narrative that has the immediacy of oral history, she interweaves the stories of seven people who experienced the disaster, punctuating their accounts with third-person reflections on the plants, animals, and even the rocks of the affected region. In answering the question, “what had this night done to us?” Kinsky delivers a visceral natural and cultural history that details—in rugged and often exquisite prose—the area’s agricultural practices, its language, folklore, and more. As we come to know the protagonists we also learn what shaped them; in addition to relatable family dynamics, disappointments, and economic worries, they are the products of violin and pipe music that with “its minor variations…is infinite,” as well as the fables ingrained in the landscape, the thistles, orchids, and roses growing on top of it, and, for centuries, of the rombo, that low rumble beneath the ground announcing the next upheaval.
“Groundglass” is an “ill-defined small swell of cells,“ which points to Savage’s father’s cancer diagnosis and to the “mysterious” illnesses striking people in the industrial Midwest, where Savage grew up and still lives. In photography, however, it’s a device “useful for manual focusing,” a definition that applies to Savage’s restrained, haunting prose as she mourns her father and investigates the responsibility for his death. Suspecting it’s one more product of big business, Savage tours brownfields and Superfund sites—located mostly in communities of the Indigenous and people of color—showing us playgrounds built on toxic landfills, trucks and trains spilling heavy metal dust as they go, aquifers exhausted by fracking, and more. Tracing “our death cult of consumerism” back to the Europeans’ theft of native land, Savage examines her own complicity in the ongoing violence and gives voice to the testimony of activists as well as victims.
Growing up as a biracial and Queer person, Imbler, a science journalist, always felt like a fish out of water—so it’s exactly right that they turned to the sea to understand their own life. Writing with a sure instinct for metaphor, Imbler sees their search for warmth in a cold city reflected in the Yeti crabs that engage in the “radical act of choosing what nourishes” them by living on undersea vents, where life was thought to be impossible; explores hybridity via the butterfly fish, a creature studied for its “difference” not for its own sake, much as they are dogged by the question “what are you?” as if they're an object; and examines their mother’s eating disorders and self-sacrifice in the light of a brooding octopus that goes years without food for the sake of her offspring. Each essay is grounded in deep empathy and studded with memorable phrases and vivid descriptions; they’re also remarkable for their balance, telling us as much about whales, salps, and immortal jellyfish as about Imbler’s relationships to men and women, family, the wider community of Queers, and their own body.