Review of Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces

Girl in Pieces, by Kathleen Glasgow

Delacorte Press, August 30, 2016

Reviewed by Amanda Fields

“Like a baby harp seal, I’m all white,” explains Charlotte “Charlie” Davis, in Kathleen Glasgow’s debut novel, Girl in Pieces. With this line, Charlie invites readers into the intricacy of her pain. At age seventeen, Charlie has a past that has led to cutting herself with shards from mason jars she stores in an organized “tender kit” of supplies. Girl in Pieces, advertised as a contemporary Girl, Interrupted, offers in its initial pages the image of Charlie’s arms and legs bandaged in white as she sits in a treatment facility, where she has arrived after several traumatic events: her father’s death, an abusive relationship with her mother, and the knowledge that her best friend Ellis is in a comatose state. Throughout the novel, Glasgow offers readers more glimpses of Charlie’s past, which involves homelessness, drug abuse, and assaults on the street. We do not learn the entire story, but snippets provide enough horror for readers to fill in. This works well with the novel’s structure of short chapters that are akin to journal entries. The story is an ode to Charlie, an arrangement of pieces that glean moments of understanding.

Once Charlie is released from the treatment facility, she accepts an offer from her old friend Mikey to travel from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Tucson. There, she meets his landlord, an artist who will play a role in Charlie’s healing. Charlie’s abiding interest in art is a characterizing feature of her journey through this novel. Soon, she finds works in a café, where she meets Riley, a musician and addict. She pursues a relationship with him even as she realizes her mistake in doing so. In some ways, he represents a remnant of her past and a harbinger of her future if she continues to harm herself.

It may be difficult for readers who become immersed in Charlie’s life to observe her getting closer to Riley, but that relationship is a key part of understanding the intoxicating nature of self-harm. And the relationship with Riley will tell readers more about Charlie’s current struggle than a cohesive account of her past would have done. This is one of the major strengths of the novel: Glasgow offers brief flashbacks but never takes readers too far from the reality of coming to terms, of trying to work through and grow around the intricacies of pain. That’s what this book is about — those painful step-by-step, imperfect methods that can get a person to the very beginning of some kind of healing. It is a novel about being an outsider and being traumatized, harming oneself and allowing the world to maneuver that harm. It is about navigating out of that harm and understanding how others who have also been in pain and trauma are part of that navigation.

Overall, Kathleen Glasgow handles sensitive subjects with empathy while offering an unvarnished depiction of her protagonist’s life and choices. Charlie Davis is strong and incredibly vulnerable, and Glasgow offers a visceral depiction of Charlie’s inner life. Readers unfamiliar with cutting might begin to understand what compels it and how difficult it can be to stop. Glasgow also populates the novel with secondary characters who self-harm in many ways and for many reasons. Each of these attributes serves to widen the audience for Girl in Pieces; it is a story that so many of us need to hear. It is a strong debut.