264 pages, $14.95
Review by James Figy
Memory—how much we dwell on it, how much we can trust it—pervades Sarah Layden’s debut novel Trip Through Your Wires. The story follows Carey Halpern, an Indianapolis native who has never come to terms with her boyfriend Ben Williamson’s murder seven years ago in Mexico—and the role she likely played in it. Then authorities find Ben’s stolen passport. The discovery sends Carey into a maelstrom of memories about that year abroad. It forces her to face the past and try to move forward.
The book is set half in Indianapolis in 2003, half in Mexico in 1995-96. In the present, Carey is unexpectedly let go from a temp office job, which was the bright spot in her life. It’s a worst-case scenario. Besides her parents, whom she lives with and owes money, Carey is alone. She cut herself off from everyone following a series of poor life choices after her return from Mexico.
Speaking of Mexico, the vibrant descriptions of its people, places, and culture radiate off the page. Carey meets Ben, and his awkward cohort Mike “Gibs” Gibley, in Guanajuato at their exchange school. Before the trip, Carey had followed Ben around Indianapolis, watched him work at a pizza shop—a slightly stalker-ish obsession. He, however, never noticed her. Once they meet in Mexico, Carey goes from dedicated runner and student to class-skipping, beer-guzzling slouch. Layden never says the three flawed, immature characters don’t know better. Far away from their families, Carey, Ben, and Mike are “[c]hildren at play despite technical adulthood. All three stuck in place, an emotional limbo of looking back and ahead. Also known as the present.”
The prose is strong, beautiful throughout, and parsed to necessary words. Sentence fragments are more efficient, more moving, despite their omissions. Also, readers might want to dust off their Spanish 101 textbook. Layden uses words and phrases you know you know, but can’t quite remember. Like Junot Díaz, she artfully slips in translations when context doesn’t clarify enough.
Cultural disconnect also plays a role, both in Mexico and Indianapolis. Ben is a man of the people, carousing with Guanajuato locals, but Carey watches from a distance. She seems, at times, “no different than any average American tourist, wanting to be untroubled by the cultural differences she’d traveled miles to experience.” She struggles to set aside the prejudices of her mother to become familiar with Spanish speakers in Mexico, and later in Indianapolis.
At first, Carey’s host family, the Alarcons, seems underdeveloped, but they are intriguing. The family is fraught enough for its own novel. It’s Carey, not Layden, who ignores them, choosing to spend time with Ben and Mike. Bartolo, the shy, adult son who owns a jewelry store, calls her out, saying, “You come to Mexico to be with Americans. You tell me the problem.”
The novel only seemed thin in its lack of resolution between Carey and Mike. The two have one tryst in Mexico, yet Mike’s obsession with Carey feels more disconcerting than her obsession with Ben, though less stalker-ish. (Now that’s a descriptor sure to make the ladies swoon.) The two come together time and again just to ricochet apart. It’s not so much a love triangle, since Carey never desires Mike for any unique quality. Mike is not the sweet, reliable foil to Ben’s bold man of mystery; he is simply there. Not the other man, just the third wheel. If there’s another man to root for, it’s Bartolo. He owns a business, is responsible, and cares more about Carey’s wellbeing than her fellow expats. But Bartolo mostly falls out of the picture.
Still, Layden intricately traces the maze of human memory, full of twists and dead ends. She shows how the past controls us, even when it’s misremembered or misinterpreted. When Carey recalls arguing the last time she saw Ben and their kiss before he ran to play fútbol with locals, the narrator says, “She thought she remembered that kiss. She tried to give it romance, though their fight changed the mood.” Then she lists the ways years of guilt and lack of mourning changed Carey’s memory.
Reading Trip Through Your Wires made me question how much I misremember, how many details I alter or omit to fit my narrative. It’s a trip I highly recommend. Though Carey is flawed, any reader can empathize with her faulty, crossed wires and how, throughout the novel “she was forced to remember: she didn’t remember. Not exactly.”
James Figy is a writer from Indianapolis, with two cats, two rabbits, a coffee dependency, an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs, and a creative writing degree from the University of Indianapolis. His creative work has appeared in The Flying Island, Punchnel’s, and UIndy’s literary journal, Etchings.