Like A Complete Unknown
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About the Author
Anara Guard's Like a Complete Unknown is a stunning debut novel following a pregnant teenager and her Odyssean adventures through 1970s Chicago. As young Katya navigates the city's subcultures in search of a place where she belongs, she is constantly haunted by both her past and future, intertwining forces that manifest in broken promises, familiar faces, and the unwelcome being growing inside her. Surrounding the central story in a web of misadventures through the city's underground and the comings and goings of hippies and luminaries, the cast of characters symbolize a colorful ethos of the 70s, ranging from a widowed gynecologist, a draft dodger, and a kind psychic. Through Guard's powerful use of perspective, we feel through each character the chill of loneliness and the stagnant air of withering hope, all against the honking and shouting of a bustling city.
There are a few areas throughout the plot that show potential for a deeper conversation, although the novel already juggles huge cultural and political topics with the nuances of human emotion and inner conflict. Katya's Polish immigrant parents are central characters in the beginning of the novel but fade into the background as her story progresses; although her leaving her family and community is a pivotal point in her character development, the mixture of disdain and hope with which she looks back seems to promise a larger, congruous closure.
Katya's misadventures are heart-wrenching and vivid, but Guard's most captivating writing is found in her keen understanding of the social and cultural issues that seeped into everyday life during Nixon and the Vietnam War. Her characters struggle to understand a society where violence is so entrenched and normalized that young men are being called off to what many consider a futile war, while at home, young women fight against cultural norms and a largely Christian-centric, male politic that denies women reproductive healthcare and autonomy over their own bodies. Although the story is set decades ago, the characters' sympathetic fury echoes familiarity to today's reader.
A talented poet and promising novelist, Guard's voice is lyrical and self-aware, allowing the reader to fully immerse themself in Katya's angst and yearnings with a gentle grace that can only come from sympathetic knowing. While her deep understanding of story and character show mastery of the bildungsroman, Guard also weaves in a poetic sensitivity through tender language, the intertwining of the crafts lulling her reader into the characters' painful, beautiful world.
4 stars --San Francisco Book Review
This story of change, transformation, and growth captures not only the social and political milieu of the 1960s, but its pitfalls and opportunities. Readers who want a sense of what these times were like and the struggles experienced by those both within and outside of the system will find Like A Complete Unknown a vivid, thought-provoking story that captures this world from two different experiences. --D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review