By Ekta R. Garg

November 18, 2021

What You Can See from Here by Mariana Leky

Release date: June 22, 2021

Genre: Literary fiction

In all honesty, as an author I’m divided on this book. Part of me—the author part of me—loved it. Was envious of it. Leky’s prose, and Tess Lewis’s translations, are downright ethereal at times.

Main character Luisa and her best friend, Martin, come upon a pair of bullies—twins, no less—who are torturing a fox. They beg the twins to stop hurting the animal, but the bullies don’t listen. So Martin pulls Luisa close, pressing her face into his neck. Luisa thinks:

“I decided I would marry Martin one day because I believed that someone who would spare you from having to watch the world take its course has to be the right person.”

A little later, when Martin and Luisa make their way to Martin’s house, his father, Palm, stops them outside. An alcoholic, Palm is also abusive toward Martin. Everyone in the village knows it, but no one knows how to make it stop because Palm is beyond listening to reason. Even though Luisa’s dog, Alaska, is with them, she’s still afraid. She tells us:

“Palm grabbed Martin, whose eyes were still closed, and dragged him into the house. Alaska growled for the first and only time in his life. The door slammed so hard it seemed it would never open again.”

That last line, in particular, sets the mood for what Martin’s life is like. We’re never taken inside of Martin’s house and don’t ever witness his abuse firsthand. But we know, from little clues like that, how miserable his days with his father are.

I admire writing that can flex in so many ways like this. Leky has dozens of lines like these, and they’re beautiful and serve their purpose all at the same time. I know writing like this isn’t easy; it takes hard work. But there’s a solidity in Leky’s writing that says, just as quietly as her story does, that this is how she views her stories and their worlds.

It’s amazing.

However, as a writer, I’m a little unsure of what to make of her work. What’s the difference, you might ask, between an author and a writer? An author is published; the work is out there for the world to see. There’s no taking it back and saying, “But wait, I just need to fix these four things and then you can have it again.”

A writer is actively working on the craft. They may not be widely published yet or published at all. But they’re in the trenches at the moment, working toward that luminous goal.

All authors are writers. Not all writers are authors.

Despite the publication of my debut, I still feel like “just” a writer at times. When I read books like Leky’s, my writing seems too economical, too staid. Yet I also see things that I believe I would have done differently.

The book is literary fiction; by that label, it has full range of the characters’ inner thoughts and their emotions. Plot can come and go without much consequence; story—the why of it all—reigns supreme. If the plot happens to move forward, great! If not, no worries.

Here is where my writer self argues with my author self. As an author, I know that what Leky did in the book fits not only within her genre but is clearly her comfort zone. As a writer, I wanted more movement in the plot itself. The book contains layers of beautiful textures, but after a while I want to do more than just run my fingers over bolts of fabric. I want to wear the finished outfit.

Some readers can spend hours in front of those bolts and feel content seeing the colors and the variety. That’s what literary fiction affords them, after all, and in our fast-paced world it’s so nice to have that option. The possibility—and permission—to just be.

I did find myself, as a writer, getting a little impatient, though. Luisa has grand revelations, but everything around her is so muted—so steady—that even her grand revelations feel quiet. It’s that whole argument of trees falling in the forest when no one’s around.

I guess this means that as a writer who is reading, I need a little momentum to keep me engaged in a book all the way through. Truth be told, if Leky’s writing had been less engaging, I would probably have stopped reading. But, again, her prose captivated me to the end.

My author self can learn from this, of course. Sometimes it’s nice to have pretty writing for pretty writing’s sake, and I do write like that sometimes. For me personally, though, I also want to strike a balance between the pretty writing and the forward movement of the plot and the story.

Every book I read teaches me something, and Leky’s novel has certainly taught me that it’s okay to write pretty. Authors and writers both will appreciate it. Readers will too.