What You Have Left by Will Allison

Will Allison’s debut novel What You Have Left, reads like a series of connected short stories. When the book opens, five year old Holly has just been dropped off at her grandfather’s dairy farm. Her father says he’ll be back, waves good-bye and disappears from her life for thirty years. What follows are alternating narratives of the years both before Holly’s birth (concerning her parents Wylie and Maddy) and after, concerning Holly’s relationship with Lyle.

Holly is a bit of a train wreck. She drinks too much and abuses Lyle both before they marry and after. Of course, she has abandonment issues.

I really liked the first chapter of What You Have Left. Allison captured young Holly’s voice (although I have to admit that at first I thought the narrator was a young boy) beautifully. The first chapter mainly concerns Holly’s relationship with her grandfather, Cal, a kind man who tries to be both mother and father to Holly. His death sends Holly on a course of recklessness that seems to take her years to pull out of.

It’s not always easy to  like Holly. She’s one of those chip-on-her-shoulder types of characters who doesn’t seem to take into account anyone else’s feelings but her own. Her husband, Lyle, is a saint – even when he, too, seems to make stupid decisions.

I also appreciated hearing her father’s story. I think we tend to forget that parents have lives before they become parents and sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that. Children can be selfish. Parents, too.

In the end, I liked What You Have Left. Perhaps not everyone will like the narrative, but the voices are distinct and compelling and this slim novel has a lot to say about family and forgiveness.

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