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A Book As An Epiphany: A Review Of Nicolette Polek's 'Bitter Water Opera' photo

In Nicolette Polek’s debut novel Bitter Water Opera, there is a woman who leaves her husband by taking one object from their apartment each day and stashing it in the base of an abandoned water tower. Her husband doesn’t notice his wife’s quiet, gradual departure because he’s too busy staring at his reflection in a gold-framed mirror — until that’s gone, too. “You can’t leave something that way,” the narrator, Gia, tells the woman, and then adds only to the reader: “even though I didn’t know what the right way would be.” This is one of many strikingly beautiful insights held within the 122-page wonder.

In life, there is always something missing, always a void. Then we look up at the sky and each star is a different, distant possibility — a chance to fill the inexplicable gap. We reach around and grasp at whatever we can. Especially during times when the void is heavier than usual. In Bitter Water Opera, Gia has just been left by her husband, following a string of infidelities she partook in. It started with a man on a walking trail; the rest were just attempts to erase it. Her grief following the breakup takes form in a fixation with Marta Becket, a dancer who left New York and spent decades twirling in an abandoned theater in Death Valley, California. A flood formed a thick layer of mud on the floor, and Marta continued to dance barefoot. She painted an audience on the walls. “Every woman wants a castle,” Gia contemplates.

The fixation intensifies into an embodiment. Marta shows up at Gia’s home. She cooks Gia dinner. She mostly does her own thing. Doesn’t speak much. “Fanaticism, I’d been told, can be a form of repressed doubt, as irony is a form of concealed enthusiasm,” Gia speculates. Soon after, she comes home to Marta’s absence, as if she was never even there. This is the first segment of a cockeyed quadriptych; the second is Gia’s attempt to fill the void with seclusion and nature. It’s also a fantasy to disappear, to become unreachable. “I closed my eyes and lay still, and envisioned everyone I’ve ever met laughing in a brightly lit house, grazing each other’s cheeks with their hands, while I watched from far away in the cold, slowly evaporating into air,” she explains upon arriving at Simone’s house. It’s a moving image, one that portrays the human impulse to run away from the ones we love, to cut the umbilical cord and then wonder why we are floating away.

In exchange for residence, she agrees to take care of the house, and quickly regrets the decision upon realizing the burden: weed whacking, pressure washing, mowing the lawn, etcetera. She’s paralyzed by the mere idea of starting the work. When she discovers a dead deer in the pond, she wonders how she even ended up in this foreign place:

“It was my limerence for other people that afflicted me, my limerence to be in the future, limerence for the so-called beauty of the past, limerence for other places I had no business living in, limerence for stew when I was eating pie, a limerence so strong that I was always in a world that didn’t exist.”

A lot of these ideas bring to mind Sylvia Plath, specifically her timeless fig tree analogy, and the way ambition can rot into resentment. We cannot pursue and accomplish everything we want to; therefore, almost out of spite, we give up, don’t do anything at all.

Eventually, Gia gathers the strength to leave the house, get the tools she needs, and begin the labor. The sun is bright and the earth is vivid. Bliss befalls her, but only in blips; she recognizes contentment is only ephemeral. Still, she experiences spells of unhappiness and confusion. “It was the dreary line between responsibility and fear, and I wanted in those moments to be punished,” she meditates. She comes to the powerful conclusion:

“Not even nature, in its stillness and silence, could pull me out of myself in any lasting way. Even after days when I was grateful to be surrounded its complexity and beauty, and would experience weightlessness and relief, I would still retreat, hours later, within my rattled body, unable to bring nature inside. I turned to face myself and it failed. There was still a door in me, and I kept it shut.”

In the third section, Gia ventures out to Death Valley Junction to explore the place that Marta had inhabited, the place where she was able to feel fulfilled and need nothing else from life. During an excursion to Badwater, the lowest point of the country, Gia feels God’s touch. “I was surrounded by emptiness, and I didn’t wish to fill it.” When she finally makes it inside Marta’s opera house, she doesn’t find revelation; instead, she finds closure. She realizes the foolishness of expecting emotional transcendence through external things such as an opera house, especially when what Marta felt had been purely inside of her. When she backs into the piano, it ends up being a cardboard cutout. Still, the unexpected enlightenment that overtook her in Badwater remains. You cannot seek it out; it will come to you.

The final part of the polyptych begins with an image of Gia’s mother tending to a garden. On the last page of Bitter Water Opera, I write: you must tend to life as if it is a garden. Bitter Water Opera is a grappling with our persistent inability to be satisfied, to feel whole. Isn’t that what every book is about, what every piece of art is about, what life is about? If only we could be flowers, living off of only what we need, uncomplicated by the curse of wanting more. Bitter Water Opera is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Almost every sentence an epiphany. Entrancing prose communicates new depths of anguish and joy. Toward the end, Gia muses, “What survives materiality is a story.” Bitter Water Opera will be passed down from generation to generation, eternally resonant and astonishing.

Get Bitter Water Opera here.