Book Review

A Tiny Upward Shove

A Tiny Upward Shove

  • Author: Melissa Chadburn
  • Genre: General Fiction
  • Publication Date: April 12, 2022
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Thank you to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, rape, child abuse, violence, drugs, harm to an animal

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Addictive and headlong” (Lauren Groff), A Tiny Upward Shove is inspired by Melissa Chadburn’s Filipino heritage and its folklore, as it traces the too-short life of a young, cast-off woman transformed by death into an agent of justice–or mercy.

My grandmother, sitting at her doily-covered table, marmalade on her cheek, explained that the aswang is all the evil bad things that a town or a society would want to deny–eventually it has to come out, has to be personified into something or the truth will reveal itself.

Marina Salles’s life does not end the day she wakes up dead.

Instead, in the course of a moment, she is transformed into the stuff of myth, the stuff of her grandmother’s old Filipino stories–an aswang. She spent her life on the margins, knowing very little about her own life, let alone the lives of others; she was shot like a pinball through a childhood of loss, a veteran of Child Protective Services and a survivor, but always reacting, watching from a distance. Death brings her into the hearts and minds of those she has known–even her killer–as she is able to access their memories and to see anew the meaning of her own. In the course of these pages she traces back through her life, finally able to see what led these lost souls to this crushingly inevitable conclusion.

In A Tiny Upward Shove, the debut novelist Melissa Chadburn charts the heartbreaking journeys of two of society’s cast-offs as they find their way to each other and their roles as criminal and victim. What does it mean to be on the brink? When are those moments that change not only our lives but our very selves? And how, in this impossible world, can we rouse ourselves toward mercy?

I have to be honest, here. I really struggled with this book, and I just don’t think it was the best fit for me. Let me tell you a little bit about why.

First off, I was curious to learn more about Filipino folklore and culture, since it’s an area I don’t know much about at all. There were a lot of words in Tagalog, and the vast majority weren’t defined. I had a hard time understanding a lot of them, and definitely feel like it would have been helpful to have a glossary of the terms, many of which I wasn’t able to figure out on context, and couldn’t find any definition for without constantly stopping and having to Google literally everything. Which made it difficult to stay focused on the book, since I had to start and stop reading so often. Eventually I gave up on figuring out what the words meant and just glossed over the fact that I had no idea what they referred to. 

The book was a slow read until the last 25% or so. While major events occur throughout the book, it would shift to various times in the past and explore the backstory of so many characters in the book. It wasn’t hard to follow, but it was somewhat jarring. And I didn’t quite see how everything was coming together, but it wound up being more of a collection of vignettes touching on all the characters.

I think my biggest issue during the reading of this book was the graphic and brutal nature of what was discussed. While I’m not usually too bothered by much in books, this one included graphic discussions of sexual abuse of children (one of which was only 3), and a very graphic rape scene of a 13 year old. There’s also a lot of violence and drug use, and harm to an animal, which was all incredibly disturbing. I really struggled to continue reading because of all of this. 

However, the characters are all well-created and easy to empathize with. Each of the major characters is subject to devastating issues beyond their control, and I wanted to cry for all of them. The plot itself was intriguing, and I wanted to see how exactly the aswang factored into the story. 

This was not an easy read, by any means, and while I loved how the story ended, I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed the journey. This felt like very much a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” 

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