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Self Storage    by Gayle Brandeis order for
Self Storage
by Gayle Brandeis
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The narrator of Self Storage, Flannery 'Flan' Parker, is a young mother of two (fearful Noodle and escape artist toddler Nori). She's married to perpetual grad student Shae, a 'virtual husband' who spends his days watching soap operas and playing Doom (all in the interests of his research into Televisual Abstractionism and Virtual Selfhood). They're part of a tight community in Student Family Housing at the University of California Riverside campus. Amongst the friendly international group is a reclusive Afghan couple - Flan is intensely curious about them, in particular about the wife, Sodaba, always hidden inside a black burqa.

What keeps Flan sane? The passion she inherited from her mother (who died of cancer when she was seven and gave her a horror of hospitals) for poet Walt Whitman, as well as her regular scavenging from auctioned self storage units, which - aside from what she gives away to friends and neighbors - she sells on eBay. Flan is estranged from her father, their relationship distant and difficult after her mom's death. She discovered Whitman's Leaves of Grass in her high school senior year, liking how 'I could open the book and new rooms would open inside me.' She tells us that in a life with no time for herself, 'Whitman was my therapist, my priest, my touchstone.'

A fascinating sequence of events unfolds, beginning with Flan's acquisition of a special box at auction, one that's a work of art on the inside and includes only a message, a scrap of blue paper inscribed with the word 'Yes'. Flan tracks down the owner, Julia, in a blue house in the mountains, and gives her wise advice, to do 'what makes you say Yes inside.' Later, Flan's attempt to help her Afghan neighbors has unintended consequences, in this fearful time soon after 9/11. Then disaster strikes, and Flan's family's lives are drastically changed by the choices that she makes in the midst of pain and prejudice. But not all the changes are for the worse.

This novel is a delight. Flan seems to operate (more than most) by serendipity, buffeted by the winds of fate. As a reader, you have no clue where she's heading next, but know that you want to go there. Walt Whitman ties it all together, his work regularly quoted. And our seeker, Flan, asks at the end, 'What would happen if every door of every storage unit rolled up all at once ... if everyone's longing came rushing out? ... Think of the sound that would make - a sustained, operatic Yes.' A wonderful image and a remarkable novel - don't miss Self Storage.

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