Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s debut novel, Spark, teeters on edges: the edge of consistency, the edge of credibility, the edges of smoothness and tenability. Characters, too, all seem poised to fall off an emotional cliff—especially the narrator, Andrea. In less capable hands, the story could grow tiresome, but Mauk insistently pulls her readers safely back, every time, just in time. Spark is filled with so much of Andrea’s quiet drama—her pyromaniac brother, Delphie; her strained relationship with her mother; her crumbling romantic relationship; intense therapy sessions; bizarre friends; and late-night descents into New York’s underworld—that I wanted to look away. But here’s the thing: Mauk’s novel, like fire for Delphie, is seductive and mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop. This is a one-sitting, forget-to-eat kind of novel.
At the start, Andrea Simon’s brother has just been released from prison after serving a twenty-year sentence for setting fire to a home and killing the family inside. Her mother (whom she distantly addresses by her first name, Jenny) pushes her to house Delphie in her tiny apartment as he transitions to normal life. This alone would be enough trouble for anybody, but Andrea also harbors unreasonable guilt about what happened. Born a bone marrow donor to cure her brother of a rare cancer, Andrea takes responsibility for Delphie’s crime.
Before Delphie moves in, Andrea clears her home of matchsticks, lighters, candles—anything involving fire. After he moves in, she tries to shield him from news and images of fire. Her tranquil life—a happy marriage, a relaxed job as a dog walker—is interrupted, and Andrea is in danger of losing herself. Or so it seems. Andrea’s close friend and client, Rain—a flamboyant, aging actress with her own personal and professional drama, nudges her: “Do not lose your center. Do not lose your self.” But one question that lingers as the novel progresses is whether Andrea ever really claimed an independent self, or whether she’s always identified as a product to cure, a protector, and an essential part of Delphie. As Andrea grapples with her changing relationships and sense of self, she wanders the streets of the city, following strangers down alleyways and onto bridges. It’s less a search, however, than an escape.
The city shines in this novel, particularly its inhabitants. Filled in with just a few brush strokes, the city’s people are vibrant and yet completely unreachable to Andrea. She watches distantly as children play, well-heeled women chat, and the throngs of normal people commute to normal jobs. Andrea is not among them, but her alienation does not concern her—in fact, it barely registers. Readers might want to make meaning out of the people who fade into and out of view, but Andrea simply lets them glide by.
The narrator does find a new friend in one of the city’s people—Sally, a vodka-swilling, night-owl goth, found on her first late-night roam. Andrea’s attraction to Sally is almost (but not quite) erotic; what Andrea seems to want is for Sally to take care of her, guide her, and perhaps mold her. Create Andrea’s self for her. Sally is enigmatic to both Andrea and the reader; she appears at the right moments, never sleeps, works in and frequents secret places. Sally seems to have answers (and questions) for Andrea, but it is unclear whether she is entirely real:
Wait. I will wait. But if I wait, she will not come. Like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, Sally has to be dreamt first.
Sally’s realness is not that important, though—the extent to which Sally is Andrea’s projection of another life and a new beginning matters less than the simple fact that Andrea eventually recognizes she has a shot at a new beginning at all.
And beginnings, in the end, are at the heart of this story. Early on, Andrea’s mother makes a powerful, if vague, claim: when Delphie set that first fire, it...