Caroline Allen‘s “Air,” the sequel to “Earth” and the second novel in Allen’s ‘Elemental Journey’ series, addresses the universal theme of growing up via the unique, other-worldly voice of her début novel.
In the case of protagonist Pearl, growing up means growing away, leaving her rural Missouri for the resolute foreignness of Tokyo, an urban jungle entirely opposite of the earth that anchored her — quite literally — to home in the first book.
Pearl’s “visions” continue to make appearances in this novel, which begins after Pearl has completed journalism school and has made a dozen attempts at skydiving, an activity that allows her to distance herself from the earth to which she was so rooted as a child throughout the first book. Allen’s construction of these visions, which allowed her to gain a true sense of place in her home state, sensing the history of the Osage that once lived there, paves the way for a new sort of vision once Pearl arrives in Tokyo, rootless, raw, and far from home.
“My soul was not used to staying inside,” Pearl says upon her arrival in her new home; it is obvious almost immediately why air was chosen as the representative element of this book. Earth is home, but air is an exploration, a longing, a leaving — while it is a sense with which many can identify, Allen’s characters and keen physical descriptions make this leaving a feeling like no other. As Pearl moves further and further from her roots, she begins to suffocate — in the urban jungle of Tokyo, in the cigarette smoke that blankets her office, in her discovery of herself — though she is unaware. An expatriate and a stranger to this country, Pearl explores the new culture, with its foreign air gods, unique philosophy, and new encounters, all of which are illustrated with this same elemental theme.
“I felt an airy sense I knew him,” she says. “As though our souls had danced in the same place.”
But perhaps the most essential meaning of ‘Air’ is with regards to breath and breathing. At the beginning, Pearl is also a runner, saying that, “Running forced a person to breathe. It forced a person to stop holding their breath. But breathing here could have serious consequences.” This proves to be true, as Pearl begins to smoke more and more cigarettes, causing physical breathing difficulties, but also suppresses more and more of her personal truth, making a meditation session where she is meant to concentrate on her breathing nearly impossible. As she distances herself from the earth, she also seems to become further from herself; this very common post-adolescent feeling of loss of self is illustrated in the other-worldly voice and style unique to Allen.
The book is not without its faults. At some points, the author seems to become too reliant on the narrator’s visions — they become less of a tool and more of a shortcut, making the coincidences Pearl encounters too easy to explain away. There are also several oversights in continuity that become distracting — a last name that changes, or characterization that seems incoherent. Love and lust appear and disappear too quickly and are unexplained; certain characters are used as tools to help the story progress and do not evolve into three-dimensional people on the page.
The narrator, however, saves whatever issues the book displays; Pearl remains the same uncommonly honest character from the first tome: admitting her unfairness to the revolving door of men who seem to pass through her life, her genuine description of her feelings and shortcomings, both emotional and physical, from the odor of her own sweat to the temptation to abandon her friends for the new man in her life.
“I couldn’t cry,” she says at one point. “I didn’t have enough of me left.”
“Air” is, overall, a beautiful story, but not a pretty one. Despite the departure from the earth, the physicality of the original remains — the grime, the stench, the dirt — and it is this that grants the novel its authenticity. It is a genuine book that opens Pearl’s restricted Missouri background to the world, and it paves the way for even more self-discovery in the following installments.
“Air” is available via Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.
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Image care of Caroline Allen