Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins

A complex and consuming story of personal struggle, history and socio-political strife written with an astonishingly deft sense of language, both written and spoken. One of the finest books of recent memory.

Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover | $28
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To write in praise of this book seems superfluous and presumptuous. This reader cannot hope to properly articulate its excellence. That the author has only been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize seems inadequate, given the quality of this work. The likes of this novel have not crossed this desk in a long time and it seems unlikely that anything of equal merit will any time soon. It cascades, rushes, hurries along its way carrying the reader with it in a truly page-turning (I hate that overworked expression but it’s the only way to characterize it) way much like the rapids of a great river. Each new page brings its own compulsion to keep moving, keep reading, find out more of what these people think, how they react, what they plan, how they feel. The herky-jerky of real speech contrasted with exquisitely rendered passages in the finest literary tradition provides a constantly changing landscape of words that keeps the whole fresh and holds surprises at every turn. A master wordsmith is clearly at work and each page brings a new astonishment at the facility with the language on display here.


Several themes are braided into the narrative, adjoining and diverging as the characters struggle with the world and themselves. Water; food; justice; love; revenge; sorrow; environment; history all have a part in this remarkable work that is truly epic (another overused term). Beginning with the execrable record of humankind’s shortsighted pragmatism about the uses of what is becoming the most precious commodity on the planet, water, it moves through the political strife arising from the City of Los Angeles pre-empting the availability of the runoff of the Sierra Nevada range and depriving a high desert valley of its lifeblood. As the characters assume a greater part of the story and landscape recedes, temporarily, grief and loss paint a chiaroscuro with the divine joy of great food and family strength. The wonder and passion of this complex novel is in the breadth of scope, the depth of insight into the paradoxes of human endeavor.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor thousands of Japanese Americans, principally those living on the West Coast were arrested and detained in camps across the nation. One of the most notable was Manzanar, located in an internal valley of the California Sierras. Over then thousand were incarcerated there with very little time or forethought given to how they would be able to live without undue discomfort, not to mention the humiliation of being labelled as enemy aliens by their own country. How this was managed including the relations with the local residents is a major theme here. The personal lives of the Californians involved become the counterpoint to the social and political issues dealt with in this thoughtful novel. This travesty is backdropped by the personal struggles of the characters to survive in troubling times. The complexity of the story is a fascinating aspect. This book is, in my opinion, the best of the year if not the decade.