How To Walk Away
cover image: Untitled fresco by George Schneeman
ISBN 978-1-941550-02-1 $18.00 276 pages
Winner of the Colorado Book Award 2016
After three years in Afghanistan, Otis is adjusting to life back home. Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he obsessively replays the traumas of war, cataloging the names of the dead. Cat, his wife, is a genealogist who makes maps of families in an attempt to understand her world. When a car accident takes Otis’s left arm, he is grateful to bear a physical loss that makes his damaged emotional self visible. As he recovers, he and Cat confront the silences upon which their marriage is built.
Lisa Birman’s cathartic, uncompromising look at the mind of a war veteran struggling with post-traumatic-stress and OCD is both harrowing and rhapsodic in turn. At the center of the book is the depiction of his relationship with his wife--all the light and shadow of daily life, the epic sense of separation, loss, paranoia, and homecoming. Birman’s compassionate novel takes us behind closed doors into a world turned upside down but somehow familiar and totally real. How To Walk Away belongs in the same company as Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Hannah Weiner’s The Fast.
Lewis Warsh, author of One Foot Out The Door
How To Walk Away is about coming home, often the hardest thing. Otis tells the reader: “I know that numbers are dangerous. I know that letters are also numbers. I do what I can to steer around. Given the landscape. The history.” Lisa Birman’s perfect book explores the secret byways of PTSD, the pandemic of our age. In original and powerful prose, circumnavigating surprises as they appear, it peels the layers of the onion until healing is within sight. This is the magnificent debut novel by a writer I know will give us many. Birman is a gorgeous storyteller with an ear for shaping language and a talent for creating people we learn to suffer with and love.
Margaret Randall, author of Che On My Mind and About Little Charlie Lindbergh
How to Walk Away by Lisa Birman is an extraordinary book: at once a gripping, intense, grace-filled story, and a profoundly insightful mapping of minds grappling with the diamond-edged particularities of their complicated human conditions. I was struck by this novel’s wisdom and the hard-won ease with which it wears it. A book to read slowly, to savor and to return to.
Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome
How To Walk Away offers a stunning cartography that, through its tracing of phantom limbs and other vacancies, leads us to the “room inside the room.” All the while, time is kept, a grief clock sounds, through the counting of steps and the relentless inventory of all that is and all that is no longer. Lisa Birman’s moving novel is a tremendous contribution to contemporary war literature and deeply reminds us that in the trenches of war’s aftermath--at the crossroads of radically opened and closed bodies--we must rethink the terms of “going on.” Here is a visionary book that, long after it is finished, continues within the reader, inviting us to walk towards our most difficult questions. It is a place we need to go.
Selah Saterstrom, author of The Meat and Spirit Plan
“Maybe I am being incomplete,” says the narrator of Lisa Birman’s stunningly beautiful first novel, How To Walk Away, near the start of a journey that will take us from “celestial intention” to “all the spaces you no longer meet.” Geography, orientation and survival—what it means to choose one direction or number rather than another—perform or unfold a psychic space that is both internal and communal. On nearly every page is a remarkable, fluent and searing sentence that transcends narration to seem, also, as if it is a choice being made in the body of the reader of this extraordinary work of fiction. Here are some examples: “When I first got back, I tried making a map of a day. I needed a system.” “I could keep moving through. Other times I figured I could go all night without getting to what I wanted to say.” “And that’s how we make it home.” I am obsessed with this book. I am obsessed with the genius and joy it took to write this book: qualities that shine through the devastation and trauma that also lie at the heart of this brilliant story that allows itself, on every page, to feel something, and in this way, through the body itself, life itself, rather than fate or chance or “sameness”: transcend. “Just to remind me that there’s a door and that there’s something on the other side,” writes Birman. And we step through. “Which changes everything.” Transcendence here is closer to sensation, to the mixed texture of being fully in the world, than it is to a future space or sense. “If invisible has a smell, this is it. I lean into it,” Birman tells us. Or: “How we cannot know or plan to know. How intersections are something worth hoping for. Maybe that’s what other people talk about when they talk about faith.” Maybe this is why we read. I am so grateful to have encountered the talent of Lisa Birman, which is grounded in generosity, love and an abiding interest in migration as a core human factor, code or concern. I hope that you will enjoy this book as much as I did, when I read it, without stopping, on three successive, late summer afternoons.
Bhanu Kapil, The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
Lisa Birman is the author of For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America (Hollowdeck Press, 2008), and co-editor of Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House Press, 2004). She has published several chapbooks of poetry, including O – A Conversation and deportation poems. Her work has appeared in Floor Journal, Milk Poetry Magazine, Revolver, and not enough night. She teaches for Naropa University’s MFA in Creative Writing.