In the final third of Meghan Gilliss’ novel “Lungfish,” its narrator, Tuck, ponders the creature that gives this book its title. “Lungfish can go three and a half years without food,” she muses — and appears to be considering that feature with no small amount of envy. “Lungfish,” Gilliss’ first novel, is a deeply felt and genuinely harrowing story of one family’s life on the margins of society, and the conflicts within the family that threaten their already-fragile lives.

When the novel begins, Tuck — along with her husband, Paul, and their daughter, Agnes — have recently relocated from Pittsburgh to Agnes’ late grandmother’s house, located on an island in a thinly disguised Casco Bay (although it’s never named). “There was a lack of practical concern that ran in our blood,” Tuck reflects. The move is just one piece of evidence that supports her observation. The family is technically squatting; the house is the property of Tuck’s absent father, whose whereabouts are a source of constant tension for her. While the family is living on the island, there’s another ticking clock ratcheting up the tension: the question of when they will be forced to leave.

If that were the only conflict facing Tuck and her family, it would likely suffice for a rough-hewn tale of economic hardship and the struggle to survive. But the family is tormented by other concerns as well, not the least of which is Paul’s furtive kratom habit. He spends much of the novel’s early pages going through withdrawal, and his secret ruptures any sense of trust within the couple. Add into the mix the presence of a small child who barely understands the precarity of the situation, and you have a thoroughly disquieted, dysfunctional dynamic.

“Lungfish” is told through Tuck’s first-person narration, and both the language used and the fragmented chapters effectively convey her mental state — facing an array of tasks that prevent her from focusing while simultaneously recognizing that not focusing properly on a task at hand could doom her and her family. Sometimes, the language starkly evokes the challenging economic circumstances, with sentences that bluntly lay out the family’s circumstances: “After the gas, we have $10.53 for food,” Tuck calculates.

The senses of panic and regret that run through the novel are essential to its themes, but they aren’t the only emotions at hand. Gilliss, who lives in Portland, has a knack for evoking vivid sensory experiences, as when Tuck observes of her recovering husband, “The smell of sick tiger that oozed from his pores is gone.” And some of the descriptions of the landscape create stunning mental images:

“It’s no longer the island of my grandmother’s house. It’s the island of eelgrass and jackknife clams, waved whelks and deadman’s-fingers. Of bull thistle, nightshade, and hawkweed. Of sheets of pearly everlasting. It’s the island of sugar kelp, soft sourweed, and of course the waving beds of purple dulse.”


Even in a passage as pastoral as this, a sense of loss hovers. “Lungfish” depicts complex, emotional and tangled relationships, and memories and images rarely come without a conflicting series of mental associations. Even Tuck’s occasional memories of growing up around horses abound with ominous, visceral imagery, including those that veer into the nightmarish (sometimes literally).

At one point early in “Lungfish,” Tuck ponders a feature of the natural world. “I was accustomed to windbreaks, to the idea that trees hold together what’s between them, keep it all from just blowing apart.” It’s at moments like these that this novel’s precision about the natural world takes on a metaphorical significance; it’s hard to avoid seeing Tuck as herself acting as a kind of windbreak for her entire family.

And yet this is a novel in which families often fail to engage in the kind of togetherness that a happier family would. Tuck’s absent father is one sign of this, but he’s not alone in proving that the dysfunction between Tuck and Paul is far from the only way a family can fail to connect. Reading “Lungfish” can be draining, but it’s also a subtly thrilling experience as Tuck marshals every resource she has to face the obstacles in her way — even as she wrestles with whether she herself is one of them.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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