A Willa Cather Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Joy Castro is the author of literary novels and thrillers, essay and short story collections, as well as the soul-searing memoir The Truth Book. In Flight Risk, she does an excellent job at balancing the ambiguity of her characters’ choices, while challenging readers’ expectations. Raised in West Virginia, she shows her insider knowledge in the concerns and interactions of the characters.
This novel starts at the fairy tale ending, with Morales, a successful artist in her own right, married to Jon, a stunning, compassionate man who is wildly wealthy and emotionally connected. Yet only two years into their marriage, the relationship has cooled. Our protagonist is filled with her own complexities and self-doubt, suspicious and at times resentful of the access she has to monied art collectors. Her castle-like setting is complete with an evil, scheming mother-in-law, who presents a composed and loving face to her beloved son. As the novel opens, we are perched, in that spectacular Chicago penthouse, for a fall.
Our narrator is not comfortable in this environment. Contemplating a pending strategic dinner party she thinks, “Rich people fetishize everything. They fetishize their food; they fetishize their drinks. They fetishize their clothes and cars and jewelry and where they go on vacation. Everything has to have a story. […] At dinner parties they sit around telling each other stories of their expensive shit.” She refuses to disclose her origin story, her provenance, to her Jon. It is almost as if there is a worm at our narrator’s core; disdain, contempt, and suspicion come easily to her as she judges her dinner-party guests and their evaluation of her. Or perhaps it’s a projection of her own false narrative.
Without calling it imposter syndrome, Isabel does doubt her footing in her sumptuous palace. The truth is, she is an imposter. She claims home cooking by using the recipes of a street vendor. She erases her past by never disclosing it, her locket a keepsake with a photograph of a child that, once her mother-in-law asks her about it, she buries among her clothing. And lies to her husband. She recognizes her betrayal: “It’s just that easy to sell yourself out. Your family. Your Past. Your home. To chip away at the truth of yourself until you’ve sculpted some strange new being who stands in your place.”
An outsider with a chip on her shoulder as large as the diamond on her hand, Isabel has a barely veiled disdain for the world of privilege she has willingly entered. The disregard for the West Virginia home she abandoned is omnipresent. Isabel is unsettled, unmoored, and tentative in most of her dealings, including the people she entertains, the affection she craves from her husband, and her interactions with a mother-in-law searching for the chink in Isabel’s armor that she can exploit to tear her son out of this “mismatched” wedding.
At a gala, Isabel is convinced Jon is sleeping with a colleague. Stiff-necked, both needy and resentful, Isabel sets off to her mother’s funeral in West Virginia with barely a word to her husband. Her husband has become increasingly distant in these recent weeks of their still fairly new marriage. And yet, rather than ask him about it, risking revealing the wounds written across her heart and body, she prefers to flee. She told him nothing of her mother, claiming to be an orphan. She’s pregnant, but not willing to tell her husband. Is she withholding to punish him? To punish herself for mysterious past missteps? Is she ambivalent about the pregnancy itself? Before leaving her Chicago penthouse, she grabs a literal sack of jewelry he has given her — taking her own ransom — and returns to West Virginia to attend her mother’s funeral and excavate her past.
What pulls us along through this narrative is more a “what happened and how” than a whodunnit. What had Isabel’s mother done and why? We avidly read along as Isabel flees the privilege of her Chicago home and lifestyle to revisit, remember, and endure memories of her past.
Even in West Virginia, Isabel remains aloof and observant; she absents herself from conversations and interactions. At times, Isabel’s confusion and hesitancy become our own. What are we supposed to feel for a character who has taken so many forms in her young life?
I’d learned silence early.
“I know, baby. I know,” Momma said, rocking me on her lap. I was in kindergarten. “You just got to keep drinking water. The pain’ll pass.”
My arms were wrapped around my middle.
“I know, baby” she kept saying. “I’m hungry, too.”
This was before my mother realized the economic value of boyfriends.
That zinger of a last line alludes to what is to follow: the history of Isabel’s mother with a number of hookups and shack-ups, until we learn what led to the mother’s incarceration late in the novel, the slow reveal a distillation of anxiety, poverty, and survival ingenuity.
In West Virginia, we find out more about Isabel: she’s the bastard child of a Mexican truck driver, taunted at school for her dark skin. Castro deftly hints at the anti-Blackness of the tiny community, and how it’s absorbed even by Isabel; the fear of immigrants in the present, the now-changing town with its Mexican restaurant, Norteño music, and Spanish-speaking staff; the ugliness of strip mining and its soul-deadening cost.
Castro within Isabel’s memories conveys loving moments between a small daughter and her vibrant mother contrasted against a growing girl, a younger brother, and the parade of the mother’s partners. She is a master of evocative images: “Her laugh: champagne flutes dropped from a great height.” About a Manhattan gallery owner, “Lark Svenson, rail-thin and pale as a cave fish. […] Smooth, short sheets of steel-colored silk poured from Lark’s scalp, and her shoes looked like torture fetishes.”
I would have truly enjoyed more time in Isabel’s head as she recounted her past liaison with a current friend and former lover. We get the setup, the fairly businesslike proposition, but did she enjoy it? Was this relationship of convenience erotic to her? The details Castro withholds are intriguing, as well as the literary references the narrator makes, revealing a depth of literary knowledge when I rather was hoping for an artistic lens with which she might perceive the world. When on a brief trip to England, for example, she haunts the manors of Henry James and E. M. Forster, rather than, say, the Tate Modern.
At its most intriguing, Flight Risk is a novel that explores internal and external conflicts: a brown girl in a white and black world. A girl from an impoverished background now clad in cashmere and jewels. The story slowly reveals itself, in snapshots and asides, and Castro respects the reader’s ability to make connections and inferences. We read on, eager to know who is that child in the photograph, why Isabel’s mother was incarcerated, and what so utterly severed her relationship to her hometown and kin that she kept most of her past hidden from her husband. Even with the dazzling view from a penthouse in Chicago, her damage and trauma can’t withstand the pull of her secret past in the hollers of West Virginia. We read on, riveted, to the end.
Désirée Zamorano is a California-based short story writer, novelist, and playwright. She is the author of the novels Modern Cons, Human Cargo, and, most recently, The Amado Women.