Title: A Tiny Upward Shove
Author: Melissa Chadburn
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication date: April 12, 2022
Genre: Literary Fiction, Mulicultural
One Sentence Summary: Marina’s life doesn’t end when she dies; instead, she’s given the chance to fulfill a mission and look into her heart and the hearts of others to figure out how she came to be where she ended up.
A Tiny Upward Shove is a novel about those who slip through the cracks every day. Anchored by Filipino culture and folklore, it follows the short life of a young girl named Marina who was one of those who slipped through the cracks and ended up meeting her fate when she’s picked up by a serial killer. This novel is intense and shines a bright light on dark corners. It’s horrifying at times and difficult to read, but I loved how it really exposes what happens every day, exposes the parts of life most people don’t even want to think about. Unfortunately, the serial killer part of the story fell flat and was, overall, such a small part of the narrative, that I wasn’t a big fan. But I did like what this novel worked to accomplish.
The victim of a serial killer, Marina’s body has the chance to come back to finish her mission, as an aswang, a thing of Filipino folklore. As the aswang, who has accompanied Marina’s family for generations, stalks Marina’s killer, debating revenge or following through with Marina’s mission, it takes the opportunity to examine not just Marina’s life, but her killer’s, seeing just how these two souls were on a collision course with each other.
A Tiny Upward Shove is a serious, dark, gritty, intense story. It features the people who slip through the cracks, the children who become wards of the state, the children who go missing, and the victims of murder who go years without justice. This isn’t an easy read, peppered with child and sexual abuse and rape, neither does it hide behind any pretty prose. The words hold intensity and honesty, painting the world in harsh colors. As hard as it was to read at times, I appreciated how it didn’t try to hide, how it gave the silent and missing a voice, exposing the horrors that many live through today.
At the heart of the story is a young girl named Marina. Raised by her single mother Mutya and grandmother, whom she referred to as her lola, Marina had been a happy child. She was close to her lola, cared for by her lola, until Mutya decides to follow a guy and they leave Northern California, and Lola, behind for LA. When it quickly becomes just Marina and her mother, Marina must grow up fast, loved and forgotten by her mother in turns. She’s a smart girl who longs for the warmth and love of her younger childhood days. The things she was forced to face and deal with broke my heart. But she’s tough and motivated. She fights back whenever and wherever she can, but she slips through the cracks just like so many others.
A Tiny Upward Shove follows Marina through childhood and into young adulthood. Her changes into adolescence felt real, her questioning was grounded in reality, and her exploration was timid and sure in turns. I loved how determined she was, how she did with her life what she could. But there was always something that felt softer in her, something that longed for something of her own, a life of her own. She was real and flawed and wanting. At every turn, life challenged her, threw good things and bad things in her path.
Alex is her one good thing. As teenagers, they both find themselves living and learning in a place called The Pines, though Alex has been there much longer. Alex was such a fun character and their relationship was the sweetest and most beautiful part of this story. It felt honest and stripped bare, both yearning for something, both dancing around the same thing. There was pain in their friendship, but also really beautiful, soft moments.
But A Tiny Upward Shove isn’t just about Marina, or Marina and Alex. It’s about the people who have slipped through the cracks. It reveals a broken system, one that hurts people and keeps them down even if they have the spark in them to try to survive. It makes the children tough, makes them grow up too fast. And so many don’t know about them. I really liked how this novel put the spotlight on them. Mostly, I loved that it’s set in LA, where I live, and helped shed light on things going on around me that I didn’t even know about. The most striking thing to me was reading about a place, about certain proceedings, and knowing I had witnessed them, been there, and still all this happened without my ever knowing. A Tiny Upward Shove gives a voice to those who have been lost in various ways, and what a powerful voice this novel is.
A Tiny Upward Shove was definitely not easy for me to read through, but I also couldn’t stop reading. At times it was horrific to me, but I needed to keep going, to find out more, to read more. Sometimes, it felt like I was seeing a soul that had been lost. Sometimes I wished it had been toned down, but, by the end, I appreciated how raw it was, how it didn’t skirt around the dark corners but went there instead.
As much as I liked this book, as enjoying reading the material was simply not possible, I did wish for more of the Filipino culture to come through. I forgot about the aswang a lot because I was so consumed by the story of Marina’s life. It was there in the words and phrases, in how Marina referred to things and people. There were subtle references to it threaded throughout the story, but I wished it had had more of a presence. Marina felt like she could be any girl who had to live through the horrors she did, so I wish more of her heritage had been woven in, had guided her a little more. A Tiny Upward Shove is also supposed to encompass the story of a real life serial killer, but his story was only lightly peppered in. I wanted so much more of his story, especially since the description hinted at it being more prominent than it actually was. It felt more like a detailing of Marina’s life than showcasing a collision course between two souls.
A Tiny Upward Shove is dark and gritty, serious and intense. It doesn’t hold back, nor does it come off as wanting to. Chadburn went where the story led and shone a light on all the dark corners and hidden drawers. She managed to give a voice to those who didn’t have one, who would never have one, and left it in the hands of readers. It’s revealing, and difficult to read, and I’m glad I did. Literary fiction isn’t my preferred genre, but this felt so much more than that to me. It’s fiction ground in reality that plays out every day in various forms.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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