Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
SIFT distills the complexities of loss and love into evocative, poetic prose.
Alissa Hattman’s Sift opens with a sense of wonder, even of joy, at emerging to the outside world after a long period of emotional and physical isolation. Perhaps this is surprising for a novel that is at its heart about grief, a grief that continues to have profound impact over the course of the narrative. But it is also a story of recovery and transformation, a story about beauty found in the midst of despair.
Though it follows a definitive plot, Sift is a meditation driven by emotion rather than action. Written in the form of 59 prose poems, the novel is set in a dystopian near future after an unexplained climate disaster, in a world controlled by an unspecified authoritarian government. Few hints about the wider setting are given, but that is no matter: the narrator’s forward momentum is the focus. The broader setting is a resonant, but subordinate, backdrop.
“I thought that being inside would protect me, with its corners and its curtains, then a kindness took me by the throat and stretched me taut against the sky, beaming, and I found something more valuable than protection. If only you could have seen it, Mother. What light.”
We follow a first-person narrator, whose name we do not learn until late in the story, on a journey with a figure initially known as The Driver. On a mission to take agricultural supplies to fertile land, the two become stranded underground in a mountainous region, developing an intimate relationship along the way. The narrator is consumed with guilt, often addressing her absent mother, who the narrator neglected during illness and death. Returning to the surface with her new companion thus becomes a metaphor for climbing out of grief. Interweaving reflections on loss, love, and the environment, Sift illuminates both the natural world and the human soul.
The novel is a pleasure to read. Hattman’s language is sensuous, poetic. Every abstract feeling or philosophy is grounded in physical detail. Though the broader setting is broadly sketched, immediate surroundings are infused with life: nature becomes a character of its own. The action never flags, despite these vivid descriptions and introspective musings. Short and perfectly paced, the novel is quick but lingers.
“The sky is cornerless. We are unbounded. The mountain is a dark idea of shelter in the middle distance.”
Much of the novel’s power lies in its take on perseverance and transformation—literal in the case of The Driver, who becomes another character named Lamellae, and metaphorical in the case of the narrator. Their relationship is key. Together they showcase how we find the ability to persevere within ourselves, catalyzed by others. Through the poet’s eye, the natural world also transforms, grander than any human concern, reborn despite human interference. If it can survive, we can too. Hope remains.
Suffused with sentimentality as it is, the novel never becomes maudlin. Lamellae is not an idealized heroine; she is a healing presence but not a panacea for the narrator’s grief. There are no simple or easy answers. In this way the novel provides a realistic meditation on loss and love. The rare moments the novel stumbles emerge in its surrealism. A magical, mystical quality exists in Hattman’s world, but the poetic quality of the language makes it difficult to separate the literal from the metaphorical at times. Nevertheless, the pleasure of the language itself is enough to carry one through, and once oriented the reader is swept along with the narrative.
“I think about my bones and muscles, how they all work together, a miracle. I listen as my body shifts from loneliness to another feeling which is not as lonely.”
By the end of Sift, Hattman has pulled off a rare feat. She has built a vast, futuristic world by focusing on minute, immediate details. She has implemented action that feels more like meditation. She has captured a journey that travels a single area of real estate: the narrator’s mind. More important than these technical achievements are the emotional ones. The novel’s effect is not easily forgotten.
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