In “Sinkhole,” The Past Is A Living Thing, Like A Tree Covered in Spanish Moss

“When I was eighteen, I killed my best friend,” confesses the narrator of Davida G. Breier’s debut, Sinkhole. It’s the first sentence of the book and the beginning of an internal reckoning that the protagonist has spent the last fifteen years avoiding — a psychological whodunit with a literary twist.

Sinkhole follows Michelle, a 33-year-old woman haunted by her past. She’s compelled to return home after her mother is placed into a medically induced coma. While she’s driving to Lorida, Florida — a real town — for the first time in fifteen years, she reluctantly reflects on her adolescence. She thinks about her two best friends, her family, and the painful memories that led to her self-imposed exile: “I don’t want to think about the life I left in Lorida. I consider turning around as I leave the Hardee’s, but dread and guilt force me onto the southbound ramp. Maybe I deserve to feel like this. Maybe this is just a fraction of the punishment I deserve.”

Michelle’s a sad, quiet character with a searing perceptiveness. She’s been drifting through adulthood imagining different outcomes for herself. As she’s driving, she thinks about her malaise and questions its original source: “I’ve always wondered if my father took part of me with him when he died. Or if I would always have been like this.” Her father was killed in an accident when she was eight years old. It was something her mother and brother never talked about, and, around this absence, her insecurity grew until she was a withdrawn and anxious teen. By the time she meets her friend, Sissy, she’s parched for attention and recounts the powerful impression she made: “It was like she changed how I saw myself,” she remembers, “I had shape and form under her gaze.”

Their relationship is lopsided from the beginning. Sissy is charismatic, pretty, and rich. And Michelle starts to evaluate her life through Sissy’s eyes and through Sissy’s things. When Michelle visits Sissy’s house for the first time, she relishes the central air and the pool, noting, “There was more space for things that weren’t used than there was in our whole trailer.” She’s quickly envious, which brings up feelings of shame.

Breier renders complex struggle flawlessly throughout the novel. She writes the book’s most effective passages when Michelle is describing the differences between being rich and being poor. Early on, Michelle explains that central air is, “The line between relatively rich and poor in Lorida,” further quipping, “Rich kids had feathered and ironed hair that looked like delicate cotton candy. Poor kids had sticky, humid clumps that looked like collapsed scaffolding.” These observations, while wry, cut to the bone and mark Sinkhole as a sharp commentary on class and privilege specific to Central Florida and the South.

Sissy embodies the quintessential mean girl, a trope that saturates modern media but is also endlessly fascinating. There’s just something so compelling about the myth of the teenage girl that has it all, being so powerful she can bend the world and those around her at will. And examples abound: of course, there’s Regina George in Mean Girls and Blair Waldorf in the popular teen drama Gossip Girl, and even more recently the dramatization of Michelle Carter in The Girl from Plainville. These girls are treacherous in their ambition but they are also the anti-heroes to our heroes. We can’t cheer for the underdog if there’s no one crushing their spirit. These characters are also complicated. They have sad origin stories and flashes of kindness that beg the audience to question what we think we know and, maybe because they’re adolescents, or maybe because they’re girls, we desperately want to believe there’s a good reason for their bad behavior.

Sissy’s mean girl antics are only amplified by Morrison’s arrival, a shy boy who loves punk rock. Michelle and Morrison became close friends while riding the bus home from school. Their lives are similar and they share an understanding over things that Sissy openly derides, including the food they eat, Swanson’s Hungry-Man dinners, and the inventive ways they’re forced to alter their clothes to make them last longer. In true Regina George form, Sissy’s jealousy of this new bond turns manipulative and conniving, and she starts using her friend’s vulnerabilities as leverage. At one point, she cloyingly threatens to out Morrison at school, which could cause him serious harm in 1980s small-town Florida.

But even when Sissy lashes out, Michelle and Morrison still seek her approval and alter their behavior to avoid her wrath. It’s only as an adult that Michelle is able to look back at the past and notice how wrong it all was. Breier has a knack for building tension with Michelle’s inner dialogue. She’s constantly questioning her own motives and memories, unsure of the truths and lies revealed within and editing as she goes. She’s an unreliable narrator, yes. She’s killed her best friend, yes. But she is the character you’re rooting for to get it right.

Between the moments of tension, there are also moments of tenderness that disrupt the typical suspense genre. Morrison and Michelle share a secret sanctuary in the boughs of a “massive live oak tree draped in Spanish moss. It looked like an octopus with arms curving out from a thick trunk.” Here the two are able to express themselves openly and without judgment. Morrison is able to drop his tough exterior and share with Michelle about his interest in nature, books, and boys, and Michelle feels comfortable talking about her father’s death and the growing suspicion that she may not really be interested in dating or sex at all.

There is a deep undercurrent of longing pulsating throughout Sinkhole because, ultimately, it is a story about things left unsaid. How would Michelle’s life have been different, if she had just told the people closest to her how she really felt? Would her homecoming be a celebration versus a trial? Would her best friend still be alive?

Breier knows the past is anything but static; it changes and morphs, revealing a new story with every trip down memory lane. In Sinkhole, she’s asking us to take that trip, to find hope and healing in a place we thought we could never return.

By Davida G. Breier
University of New Orleans Press
Published May 26, 2022