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Book Review: Principles of Navigation

Principles of Navigation. Lynn Sloan. Fomite, Burlington, VT, February 15, 2015, Trade Paperback, 290 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

“Avoid clichés, Journalism 101. But sayings were repeated because they were true. Then they became clichés,” thinks Alice, a small town journalist, in the opening chapter of Lynn Sloan’s debut novel, Principles of Navigation. Sloan does not avoid clichés. Instead, she approaches them with a wise self-consciousness and asks her reader to do the same. In doing so, she’s created a unique novel that challenges readers to think more broadly about what a family is and what it means to love.

Alice, who is trying to have a baby, reports for a local newspaper in rural Illinois where her husband, Rolly, is an artist and professor at a small liberal arts college. Rolly’s ambivalence about parenthood forces the couple to reexamine their marriage. Sloan interlaces this intimate struggle with the dawning of a new millennium, the Y2K scare, a potential sighting of the Virgin Mary, and subtle humor that eases the blow of what is at times a heartbreaking story. She manages to bring her reader into intimate spaces and deal with the complexity of marriage. Her prose is filled with vivid images and honest reflections from both Alice and Rolly, giving this novel a distinct voice that refuses to choose sides, allowing readers to embrace both Alice and Rolly’s journey. Alice’s profession as a small town journalist offers intrigue in a novel that might otherwise fall flat early on, and Sloan adds to the pleasure of reading the novel by speckling this story with wise, entertaining humor and hope.

Sloan has published short stories in many reputable journals. Prior to writing fiction, she was a fine art photographer and taught photography at Columbia College Chicago. She also wrote for Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure. Writing about the visual arts led to writing fiction. Principles of Navigation capitalizes on Sloan’s interest in both journalism and fine art.

The novel opens strong with a clear conflict and distinct set of characters. With each successive chapter, Sloan goes deeper into Alice and Rolly’s world. While a woman wanting to have a child, and a man not wanting to, could be a bit cliché, addressing clichés rather than avoiding them is ultimately a strength in this novel. Sloan seems to know that her characters are acting out stereotypically gendered roles. The novel as a whole seems to court cliché with the intent of turning it on its head, a bold move for a first novel, but one Sloan manages to pull off.

Principles of Navigation will appeal to readers of literary fiction. You don’t need to have an interest in the visual arts or be struggling with the question of whether or not to have a baby to enjoy reading it. Sloan is not afraid to put her characters in harm’s way, and she is capable of molding their struggles into a story that ends on a hopeful note. I look forward to Sloan’s next novel.


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