Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
~reviewed by Katie P.
Green Girl is a novel that collapses boundaries. Kate Zambreno, who first published this book in 2011 before it became a cult favorite and was re-published by Harper Perennial this year, addresses her heroine and her audience directly, between long stretches of narration. Chapters, such as they are, bleed into each other, separated only by prophetic epigraphs or page breaks. (She, Zambreno, would also surely take issue with her protagonist, Ruth, being called a heroine. Ruth is both the hero and the villain of her own story, and Zambreno herself describes the character as a “hot mess.”) Surreal fantasy scenarios, imagined conversations, and real-time encounters are relayed seamlessly, lending the story a detached, dreamy (sometimes nightmarish) tone.
The title, tellingly, is taken from a scene in Hamlet in which Polonius tells his daughter Ophelia that she “speaks like a green girl” when she admits that she and Hamlet are in love. He means she is unfinished, naïve for her feelings; as unformed in her thinking as an unripened fruit. Zambreno takes this judgment, as passed from a man onto a woman, and utilizes it in subversive, poetic ways. Her green girls, whom she both writes about and occasionally to, in a series of diary-esque confessionals in the middle of scenes, are also works in progress. Instead of deeming them necessarily faulty for their green-ness, though, Zambreno deems them inherently compelling and heartbreaking in their searches to grow.
Ruth and Agnes are the two greenest girls in Green Girl, roommates on the East End of London, where they share a tiny, miserable apartment as well as each other’s clothes, secrets, and lovers. It’s Ruth’s story, though: She’s a wandering tourist/not tourist in London, having moved from Chicago to forget her sketchily-revealed past. Neither where she is nor where she’s been feel like home, and the shifting plates of her identity are the basis for a larger sense of nauseous, vertiginous uprootedness that dictates her days. She is in “the agony of becoming,” as the author perfectly distills the feeling. Ruth and Agnes spend their time acting out scenes from their favorite movies, watching their lives fall constantly short of the onscreen perfection they covet. Zambreno’s shard-like sentences are the perfect vehicle for the sharp, fragile self-image Ruth creates every time she both woos and detests the eyes of the city upon her.
Critics like Lindy West and Roxane Gay have responded so strongly to Ruth, Kate Zambreno, and Green Girl because, among other things, Ruth is not the likable female lead mainstream fiction favors. She is frustrating and deliberately alienating. But she is real in all of her choices, and that is Zambreno’s true triumph. This novel captures a woman-in-progress; girl as crocus, girl as to-be. It speaks to young women who are in similar stages of becoming, but also anyone fully grown who still sometimes feels like they don’t quite fit into the skin they’re in.
Green Girl by Kate Zambreno is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com!