Publisher: C&R Press
How fiercely do our actions rely on our sense of identity? For Elise, everything is driven by her acute awareness that she is parentless. Her father, a Vietnam War veteran, left for Thailand when she was only a child. Shortly afterward, his new wife sent news that he'd drowned. Her letter was accompanied by a photo of him, which Elise carries with her as a talisman during her travels later in life.
No matter what hidden artifacts she finds while rummaging through her mother's belongings, Elise cannot understand why her father left for this otherworldly place. For that, it is no mystery why she is misguided in love, only pursuing foundationless relationships with empty futures. All of her burning questions remain unanswered when her mother dies suddenly, tragically, in a car accident.
After her mother’s passing, Elise has no strings tying her to home. Death, loss, and the absence of familial attachment have left her numb. In an effort to reattach herself to life - or perhaps shed her attachment to the past - Elise goes on a journey through Southeast Asia. She retraces her father's steps through Thailand, hoping to find the same sense of peace he had sought years before.
Sybil Baker’s Talismans is a series of vignettes strewn together, leading our protagonist forward – not toward understanding but to a greater sense of peace. The chapters alternate between third person and first person, though the focus remains on Elise – a literary device that has the effect of constantly pulling us close and pushing us away, the same way Elise treats the people around her. It’s as if we keep going under water, then coming up for clarity.
Elise connects deeply with the cultures she encounters in South Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia. She does her best to separate herself from the average “Western” tourists, the ones who assume enlightenment through superficial experiences. No doubt, Elise measures people by the amount they have suffered, like her. Baker plays upon common Western attitudes of dominance, ownership, and control as she descriptively paints Elise's surroundings.
Elise can be a dislikable person, but perhaps that is what makes her so relatable. She is lost, confused, and self-absorbed. Her search for identity is something we all can relate to, regardless of whether parents are present in our lives.
Without a doubt, Baker's novel takes hold of the reader. Her poetic style and perceptive descriptions animate everything within, creating a story that both captivates and causes serious introspection.