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The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison

Review by Rebekah Hoffer

Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet is an extravagantly descriptive novel that will leave the taste of nihilism in your mouth — and not the fun kind of nihilism. Jamison’s main characters are Stella, a malcontent twenty-something who struggles with an eating disorder and unhealthy relationships, and Stella’s aunt Tilly, an impoverished alcoholic who spent 20 years as a stripper and the rest of her life drowning her (many) sorrows in gin. The two women are brought together by the death of Tilly’s mother, Stella’s grandmother. Since Stella has just lost her swanky job in New York, she decides to move to the opposite coast with this estranged aunt, determined to help Tilly overcome her alcoholism. Their new home is a sparsely furnished apartment that belongs to Tilly’s son, Abe. Stella and Tilly hope that they can leave their problems behind them in the dust of the highway. They soon discover that they can’t, and California only brings new problems.

If you’re looking for a cheerful book, stay far away from The Gin Closet. If you’re looking for a book with a suspenseful plot or thrilling action scenes, find something else to read. If you’re triggered by detailed descriptions of vomiting, self-harm, abortion, rape, prostitution, abuse, incest, or suicide, put The Gin Closet down and walk at least 20 paces away from it, so you can admire the admittedly lovely cover from a safe distance without opening it. This book has no happy ending. Nor, in fact, a happy beginning or a happy middle.

However, if you don’t mind a healthy dose of hopelessness, and you’re looking for a rich narrative description, you can find it here. Jamison doesn’t seem interested in plot nearly as much as the power and importance of the present moment, the gruesome minutiae of everyday life and everyday objects. Look closely, she says with each sentence. Jamison’s descriptions are so intense and specific that I actually flinched more than once reading this book. She knows exactly how to turn an ordinary image — a hand, or a sunset — into an unsettling, all-too-imaginable, warped simulacrum in the mind’s eye. She writes horror out of things that aren’t the least bit horrific. For instance, during a scene when Stella learns to bake for her new job at a bed-and-breakfast, Jamison writes, “I made puffy scones studded with the open wounds of wet-baked cranberries, sugar-dusted lemon bars, fruit pies whose dark syrupy bellies swallowed their skeletons of latticed pastry…. It looked like the pies had been slaughtered rather than baked” (page 228). She compares a sky to the gray of raw shrimp. She writes about blisters, slabs, and pith. When she writes about the ugly things, about a broken body on a floor or bad sex, she’s especially descriptive.

So, if you enjoy subtle horror, if you like to shudder and cringe and feel the bleak creep of discomfort, and especially if you appreciate painfully vivid imagery and difficult subject matter, Leslie Jamison’s writing might appeal to you. There is no doubt that she’s skilled with a pen. However, be aware that The Gin Closet is a grim tale. Read it in a sunny place, with a cat on your lap, if you choose to read it at all.

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