August 2009

Erin McKnight


is/was by Jenny Sampirisi

is four individuals; was a family. is a rived abdomen; was a uterus. is a decomposed body; was an eight-year-old girl. Set in small-town Canada in the early 1980s, Jenny Sampirisi's is/was examines, in arresting detail, the loss of a child and the resulting disarticulation of a family. The Fitches -- exploring their physical limits in the raped and murdered girl's newly uninhabited space -- experience the devastating events in wholly separate ways. Yet as Eva, the matriarch, reflects a few tender days after a brutal and disengaging surgery: "It's that each seemingly separate pain is a component of the same pain." is/was graphically meditates on this pain; Sampirisi's debut novel a revelation at once fleshy and lean and underpinned with ferocious language that embodies the often-tenuous fiber of being.

Abigail Wren stares out from the silenced television screen of a family incapable of interpreting the details of her abduction. Missing for a day, then a week, and then several months, the girl's pixilated disappearance is the catalyst for activity in the Fitch home. Recovering from her hysterectomy, Eva's movements are controlled and abrupt -- an agonizing exercise in post-traumatic living. Retreating into the wound that connects was with is, Eva's internalization results in a withdrawal that compels her husband and children toward deliberate self-destruction. Roland holds a secret that slices into his marriage and home life; fearing its revelation he applies sutures but as with surgical patients, the emergent mass media, and discarded bodies, some wounds can't help but seep. Andrew and Isabel, the children borne from an organ that Eva no longer carries, must battle their way from disembodied isolation to a presence between parents incapable of palpating the shared cavity.

In a narrative of feeling and unfeeling, intrusive communication and unsaying, Sampirisi's language is composed of individual word-cells programmed to be and to perform; the author's grasp of the boundaries between is and was manifesting in a measured progression from living to doing. The enormity of what is stolen from Abigail, the Fitches, and their sheltered community, is rendered with precision and elegance. Yet, the violence of what is lost is aggressive and devastating, and promises a dull ache that may heal but will also unmistakably scar.

Mediated through touch -- an injured hand, a head of curls forced downward, and the lens of an ambivalent camera -- Sampirisi melds feeling with action and in so doing morphs from surgeon to pathologist: analyzing, weighing, and interpreting her words for the manner in which they were mutated by the disease of a communal loss of innocence. These words may constitute individual cells and her language organs, but the author clearly appreciates that a body of work may require clean disarticulation in order to achieve both precision and dissociation.

It is clear after the discovery of Abigail's body and the riving of the Fitch family system that flesh is independent of bone; that language can function in a way that mutilates and mends. Stunningly provocative and rigorously stylized, Jenny Sampirisi's is/was is a novel compelling in premise and rendering, an examination of what can happen to one's existence -- personal and societal -- when what is plucked from it must be reconciled in a manner that invades body and psyche, home front and community.


is/was by Jenny Sampirisi
Insomniac Press
ISBN: 1897178638
244 Pages

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