A Novel


By Crissy Van Meter

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“[A] kaleidoscopic narrative . . . Tenacious, wildly original, and full of insight.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“An alluring, atmospheric debut.” —People
A Belletrist Book Club Pick

A Most Anticipated Book of the Year: Entertainment Weekly • The Millions • Bustle

A Best Book of the  Year: NPR's Book Concierge

On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding on Winter Island, the groom may be lost at sea, a dead whale is trapped in the harbor, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, the narrative flows back and forth through time as Evie reckons with her complicated upbringing—a weed-dealing, charming but neglectful father, a wild-child best friend—in this lush land off the coast of Southern California.

With wit, love, and bracing flashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of family and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief—and exerts a pull as strong as the tides.


What fills the space: water, sky, land, air.


There is a dead whale. It rolls idly in the warm shallows of this island, among cartoonish sea animals with tentacles, suction cups, and goopy eyes. There are squawking birds leaking nearly colorless shit, and we are concerned with an unbearable odor and the must-be sharks circling nearby.

This whale is lodged in the half-moon of the bay, and she can't seem to drift past the reef, even with the water pushing out. Close enough that we can see her. We can smell her. We breathe her. She moves with the comings and goings of the tides, and her lifeless body is a black balloon on the horizon. The smell has seeped into this house and lingers in the curtains. Rancid stench sticks to the ends of my hair. In the night, there are sea voices—chewing into her carcass—and when I can't sleep, I can make out the blubber plucked by night beaks and mouths of darkness unknown. Some mornings, her dead eye has been opened wide, and others, she's capsized and looks like the hull of a boat.

There isn't time for this now.

I rush to the harbor, where men are heaving fish from boats to bloodstained docks and piling them in silvery mountains on top of crushed ice. It smells familiar. The air is wet and moves deep into the lungs, and today, I'm frantic. I ask about Liam's boat, if it has come back, if anyone has seen him.

"You seen that whale out there in the bay?" they keep asking.

"Storm's still out there, Evie, and we heard they're still trying to get around it," they say.

"You don't worry one minute," they say.

"We lost all radio contact last night. Happens all the time," they say.

I'm used to guts, stink, men who drink, boats, island gossip, and sudden darkness that fills the sky. I know that storms sometimes appear unexpectedly, and I know that there are times when we have predicted them for years. I know the maze of floating docks covered in a slimy layer of raspberry-colored insides, and I know which fishermen work with efficient, tenacious speed. There is never time to waste.

The men load a crate of fresh dead fish into my truck, and I pretend I'm not worried—that I'm an old seaman, too—that this weekend will be fine, that Liam will be back in time for our wedding, that I'll be able to gut, cut, and prep all this fish alone. He always comes back. I keep saying that. And everything always smells like fish here.

The sky is filled with gray clouds pissing rain, and as I get closer to home, I can see the outline of that rotten whale and the infinite outline of that infinite storm. I tell myself to stop thinking of the whale, to think of Liam instead, but there it is, right there.

Tires are slower in the mud, and my truck slips in the gravel driveway, and I can't lose this haul of fish, because what if the boats never come back? The most important thing now: get the tuna into the freezer. I say it out loud: Tuna to the freezer.

But there is my mother, standing on my porch. Holding her hand up with an awkward wave. It's been years. Her eyes are the same, dark and eager. I'm soaked, and she's dry. Then she points to the horizon, to warn me of the beached whale lingering on the reef, or to warn of darkness.

My mother has a sensitive nose. She could be burned at the stake for this gift. She can smell pizza before a delivery guy gets out of the car. When I lost my virginity, she said she could smell it on me. She says she can still smell my father. All the things she can smell, they draw her to new places, and maybe it's her heightened senses that are the root of our problems. Sometimes she's near, sometimes she's not, and sometimes she says that she can smell when I need her by a tinge of smoke in the air. This dead-whale perfume is polluting the entire leeward side of Winter Island, and it's beginning to seep into the cracks of my skin. But it's not the worst thing to happen to us.

Today, I do not want to see my mother, because today, she will compare everything to this rotting whale. Our lives. Our sadness. Our dead. I haven't seen her in three years. Haven't heard her voice in two. And haven't received a letter in at least six months, but here she is, waving and pointing. Like she's the first to discover the body of a whale.

"Can you help me get the tuna into the freezer in the garage?" I ask.

"That's how you greet your mother?" she asks.

But I didn't know you were coming, I should have said. (And other things.)

I walk to her, rain-covered, fish-covered, and kiss her on the cheek. She backs away slowly, about to tell me what she smells. I'm about to say I always smell this way, and she musters up glassy eyes to make me feel something. She always wants me to feel something. I'm about to say that I'm just all guts anyway.

"You must have known I'd be here for your wedding," she says.

Her nails are acrylic and red, like her mother's were, and she's inside my house, touching everything with the plastic tips of her fingers: Organizing stacks of mail on the dining table, rearranging my spice rack. She's checking for dust and grime.

She nears my face and holds my chin in her fingertips, and she tells me I'm flushed.

"That fire is warm," I say.

"You're nervous," she says. "Cold feet."

There is a blanket of white fog. We can barely make out the vast green fields from the windows, but still my mother says she can make out the mound of the whale's belly if she squints her eyes at the shoreline. She keeps checking the window, pinching her nose, while the whale is teetering out there, rising and falling like the ocean is gasping long breaths. She points to a planter of dead flowers and then out to sea.

"How can we have a wedding with that thing out there?" she asks.

It was a mistake to tell her about Liam. About my life. It was a mistake to think she wouldn't make things worse. Most everything with her is always a mistake. She's nitpicky about my garden, the whale, the fog, everything. I could tell her what I really think of her or, at least, what I think of her nails.

"You shouldn't have planted those roots so early," she says.

Roses are nestled in beds that trace the perimeter of my house. I tell her I want to be buried right beneath them.

"They are so full this year," I say.

She's rustling through my cupboards and makes no remark on their emptiness. My mother has always arrived unannounced and quick to tell you what she thinks. About anything. Her moments of empathy are fleeting, and I've never figured out why and how they appear. Maybe sorcery. She's never been much of a mother, because she left me with Dad, and the times she did come back to this island, she offered pockets full of eclectic toys and trinkets, and then left within days, sometimes hours. It was awful to watch him love her so much, especially because she's so lovable sometimes.

There's not much to do here but stare at the sea.

"You and your father love the damn ocean more than anyone," she says.

I don't know what my mother eats, what kinds of foods she buys these days, where she lives, or how she got here. I know that in the 1990s, she was on diets and refused bread. There was a time when there was no dairy. Another when it was meat only.

I offer her my bread.

"I made it myself," I say. "Liam and I love to cook."

She cuts cucumbers and carrots. She talks about the mountain garden patch she kept that was infested with insects, which ate her radishes dead. Then, more about the wedding. She keeps talking—she fills all the empty space with stories—and I am silent, talking in nods, smirks, and knife cuts.

The last of today's sun is breaking through the fog, and it seems like the worst of things might pass. There is light in the kitchen. The fiery glow illuminates the walls. We agree without speaking that we should go outside, as if we can't help it, to enjoy the remaining light. She finds an old bottle of wine in the pantry and pours it into two mugs. I tell her I'm allergic, and she laughs. I say sorry for no wineglasses. I try to tell her there's a deadly storm at sea.

"That's fucking ridiculous," she says.

"It's been out there for days," I say.

"I mean, you are not allergic to wine," she says.

"It makes my ears burn and my face red," I say.

"You're just nervous."

A deer prances on the lawn, looks us in the eye, and bounces away. The dogs, guilty and muddy, return from a day of wandering, and I embrace them on the porch. My mother is hesitant about the outside smell, the dirty dogs, and apparently other things, but I can tell she's at least trying. The big dog jumps up and plants his paws on her chest, and she smiles through it, but her teeth are so tight they might shatter. My mother here helps me forget that Liam could be at the bottom of the sea or, worse, that he's chosen never to return to me.

I grab a beer from the cooler on the porch.

"You and your father really love your beer," she says.

We eat more bread, and I throw a stick on the lawn for the dogs. We are restless and hungry, and there is still light.

"You must just get used to this smell," she says.


With a mouthful of bread, I ask her nicely what the fuck she means.

"You know, the ocean, it just smells so bad. That's the one thing I couldn't live with," she says.

Winter Island is a mound of volcanic rock half-carved by glaciers, full of lush green forests and sweeping sandy beaches. There are steep cliffs that crumble from eternities of erosion. There have been woolly mammoths. There have been settlers left behind, and we know, because we spend money and years digging them out of the dirt. Mainlanders say our island was settled by trolls, the Spanish, and then all the lonely people. Our marijuana claims magical powers. Mostly sunshine. Forty miles from Los Angeles on a scenic ferry ride with room for cars and concessions. There are plenty of reasons to stay.

My mother is drinking fast, and she's telling me about the things in wine that might make me allergic. I don't have the courage to tell her any truth, like, I already know about tannins. Like, I am no idiot. Like, I am a grown woman with a beating heart, and skin, and nails, and happiness, and anger. That I don't want her at the wedding. That it's not even a wedding, but a yard party, with fish, and fishermen, and all the sea smells. I won't tell her about the red roses I'll put in my hair.

She encourages me to try more wine. This is how it goes with her—there's no no.

I need air. Even if it's polluted with dead-whale rot. I am stomping around the muddy yard with bare feet, I touch the petals of the roses with care, and I try to enjoy the lingering glow left after the last moments of sun.

My mother shouts from the porch and suggests I get garden Crocs, and that I should really figure out what to do with the whale.

The whale smell is almost unbearable, but I will never admit it. I walk around the yard concerned only with how damp the soil will be for the wedding, pushing my feet into soft spots and estimating how long they'll take to dry. The thing about bays: It's easy to get trapped in the swooping curve of their bellies, and there are only small mouths to let everything out. All exits must be planned with care. It's possible to be trapped inside a bay forever.

My mother can't stand the smell, she tells me again, and slithers inside. She can find things that aren't even there. She will.

She is walking around the living room. Her clothes hang on her like sails. Her loose sleeves are dangerously close to the flames. She tosses wood into the fireplace, and the house smells of crisp cedar and birch wood. Less dead carcass now. She sits next to me on the couch and sinks her back deep into a pile of pillows. She's almost too close as she tells me about a cooking class she took in New York City.

"Oh, you would just hate that place, Evie," she says.

I feel uneasy near the warmth of her skin, the heat of the fire, and the fire inside from all the booze. I want her love, but I want to hit her, too. Sometimes I have the urge to lean my head against her shoulder, but I fight it, because like her, she says I'm one hell of a fucking fighter.

"The teacher was really French, and we made the best beef bouillon."

But she's really here to tell me I've made a mistake. To question my decisions. She hasn't come out and said it yet. She wants to tell me that Liam won't understand, or that he'll never make me happy. She'll tell me I barely know him, and that I shouldn't have rushed into this, and that he's not really an island person. Not like my father, and not like me, she'll say. Loving someone who's in love with a rock in the sea is why, she'll say, someday Liam will leave.

She describes her travels, her life upstream, she always says, and that Winter Island is just not practical for anyone with an itch. She describes her life like this itch—she must go where the wind takes her. That her life was too big for her, that this place, and my father, and, I guess, me too, weren't enough to make her stay. She does all of our talking.

"There was a little bookshop in Chelsea that let us sell our fresh macaroons," she said.

But she meant: You should have everything you want, and Liam will just get in the way.

"Before you lived in this little house, your father and I used to sneak onto this land and kiss for hours," she says.

My mother liked to revisit these kinds of stories, the ones where she really loved him, and when this island felt like her biggest adventure. She describes the twisted vines near the pond, the always-full moons, the frogs at night. She says the island people are always looking for a way home. Says she can remember her own footprints on top of the wet sand at the lowest tide. She knows the smell of the black forest on the dark end of this island, overrun with rabid animals, and she mentions the tide pools that are full of things that can breathe underwater. She knows the best climbing trees. The views. The places to fall in love.

I pull this month's tide chart from my back pocket, and we examine it together, her head leaning close to mine, and from behind, we must be the same sloping shoulders. I decide it's too late and the tide is too high to visit the tide pools, and she says something like, Oh, you really do know everything about this place. I can't tell her that I know this island better than she does. I flip the pages of the little book and trace my finger along the wavelength lines of numbers, and it's the perfect time for her to ask me about my research and my teaching and what I've done at the Sea Institute. But she's never taken my career seriously; she says teaching college kids about the ocean is a waste of time, because there are no real answers and no one really knows what's lurking beneath.

"There will be a perfect low tide for the wedding," I say.

"You think it's a bad sign?" she asks.

"Lots of room on the sand for tables," I say.

"You're getting everything you want," she says.

It's hard to look her in the eye. We stare at the flames.

"You can say anything to me—you're my daughter," she says.

I find some courage, and the beer is working. It all comes out so fast, and I regret it as soon as it seeps out. It's like poison.

"Why are you here?" I ask.

"Can't a mother come to her daughter's wedding?"

"I guess."

"You don't want me here," she says.

"You hate it here," I say.

There were many times when my mother came back. She'd complain about the ferry as she swooped me up for a day of adventure. It happened at least once a year, never on a birthday or holiday, but she'd suddenly appear and ask me about school, or boyfriends, or weed, or whatever. She offered her versions of wisdom, comfort, womanhood. On one of these trips, she brought me my first black bra from the mainland, and she told me how to shave my pussy: But not too much pressure, because those razor bumps will sting in salt water, and when you have sex, your bumps will feel like they are on fire.

Another time, she took me to Los Angeles for a stamp collectors' show and then she asked me, over ice cream, in the Great Western Forum, if I was really happy on Winter Island. Before I could even answer, she gawked at cases of vintage postage stamps and was negotiating her way to a collector's Elvis sheet. She outbid four others. What I found: my mother wasn't crazy; she just didn't want me as much as I wanted her. My father said she simply had too much to give to the rest of the world.

We burdened ourselves with excursions full of busywork, she talked and I did the listening. We'd swim, visit the zoo, shop, run errands, plant flowers, clean tables at restaurants—anything to keep our hands busy and our thoughts quiet. Our meditative state had become something we did so well together—all the not saying of things—and it'd become a ritual for her to ask questions without wanting any answers.

She is pacing around my kitchen now with her mouth full of my bread, and there's yellow oil dripping from her chin. Like she's sucked out the insides of something once living. We've agreed in our silence to forgive again, and I change the subject.

"I've got to pick up my dress tomorrow," I say.

"Is it white?" she asks.

I'm nodding, chewing.

"Is that little Korean woman still at the tailor shop?" she asks.

I'm face-full nodding.

There's a cool draft creeping through the ancient windows, and it's this time of night when the winds change and everything blows onshore. The nighttime sea breeze rushes into my house, and then the dogs always know it's dinnertime. Tonight, though, the whale stink is dreadful, and it's like we're sitting in a puddle of funk. The dogs rustle into the kitchen, their nails scratching against the wood floors. I give them leftover chicken, and as their tags clink against their metal bowls, my mother and I make our way back to the fire, to avoid the smell and all the other things. The dogs eat quickly, plagued by the rancid stench, and then they run into the back room to hide. Like it's earthquake weather, like they know that something is coming.

"That whale just might ruin this whole thing," she says.

"There are ways to get rid of whales."

"Can't one of your sea friends blow it to pieces?" she asks.

"We'd have sharks forever," I say.

"Kill them, too," she says.

"They'd just come back," I say.

I toss her blankets and pillows from the cedar chest that I keep next to the couch. Then I squeeze her hand.

I say, "You're going to help me drag that whale out to sea."


We lied about many things, but we never lied about weather. The constant foreboding of eerily colored skies, the dry summer winds, and the densely fogged harbor mornings did not hide. Even the mainlanders saw weather hovering over Winter Island as if it were a wall of dry island that had erupted from the Pacific Ocean to protect Los Angeles from oncoming absurdities. It sprouted from the bottom of the sea, angry and no stranger to loneliness.

That day, we thought the tsunami was just a hoax. A seaman rang the bell as he rounded the harbor. Preparations were made. Windows boarded. Evacuations planned. A deep chill lingered, and Dad had to hide his weed and coke. Just in case, he said. Just in case we made it out alive, he meant.

We were renting a room in back, the only way we could live like that, from two baseball players who were Dodgers, or once-Dodgers, and who had invested their injury retirement money into a monstrous vacation home on the Western Shore of Winter Island. In the early mornings, the neatly packed mansions left a shadow upon the sea. My whole world was a pile of sparkly jewels, salty men who loved the bottle, and rich families who vacationed for sport.

I don't know how Dad met the twins—maybe through cocaine slanging, or jokes over beers, or friends of friends—but Dad loved living in that glass-walled-concrete monstrosity. It had a pool.

Dad raised me like a boy, and with mostly no mother and many cardboard boxes of macaroni-and-cheese dinners. Sometimes we'd have hot dogs with fancy German names, and sometimes we'd eat a box of warm doughnuts with small cartons of chocolate milk. Sometimes we had money; sometimes we didn't. Sometimes there were storms, and sometimes sunburns. We lived on fake money, famous money, and drug money, and always, it was just enough to never leave the island.

It was my fifth-grade teacher who parted metal blinds and gulped at the darkness building over the Pacific and said it was coming. That we'd all have to go home quickly. Without lunch. I scrounged nickels from other people's desks for a bag of Doritos and walked the shoreline home. The sea smelled saltier, and the air, thicker, and I shoved chips in my mouth, in case that was dinner.

Dad heard it on the TV while he was railing lines with the twins in the kitchen. They said it was coming and nothing could stop it. We were all to leave Winter Island. Los Angeles sent its gratitude to the little island that protects it from the wrath of the ocean, the newswoman said.

"You're fucking welcome," Dad said to the TV.

Islanders started a steady evacuation, and then dark pillows of clouds came. Neighbors sandbagged their doors and taped up windows. Otto House pedaled its hotel guests to the ferry on surrey bikes, with luggage tied to the sagging canvas top. Dad and the twins moved the bikes and pool toys into the garage. The ferry would close by twilight, and then we'd be on our own.

"We're not fucking leaving," he said.

"Will it really wash us away?" I asked.

Dad, who was born on Winter Island, said we'd stay, that we'd have a party to celebrate that monumental blessing from Mother Nature. No matter what could happen, he was not going to leave. He said we'd be just fine, like always, and that if the ship were motherfucking going down, we were going, too.

We bought the last of the ground beef from the butcher, and enough other food for a few days. Just in case the island actually flooded and the ferries never came back, Dad said we'd need protein, and that he could cook anything by fire. Dad said we'd be okay until help came or, as the twins suggested, we'd be better yet if no one ever came back. We bought the last of the old Easter candy on the sale aisle, water balloons just in case there would be time for fun, all of the chips, and a bag of apples, because the twins liked to eat healthy. When we returned home, I broke into the chips like they were a cherished birthday present and ate them without caution. Perhaps we should have planned our rations better. Perhaps we should have considered leaving then, so we wouldn't be stuck there forever. Alone.

The OxyContin pill guy and Dad's coke friend stopped in. They were preparing for the end of the world, with the amount of illegal treasures they stashed in our kitchen drawers.

"You want cheese on your burger?" Dad asked.

He was wearing his kiss the kook apron.

"Let's eat before this rain gets too heavy," he said.

Those who weren't leaving—the other single dads, a few Playmates the twins had over often, and the other beach druggies—began to take shelter at our place. They jumped in the pool and screamed things about the end of days.


  • A Most-Anticipated Book of January 2020 ―Bustle
    A January 2020 Must-Read ―Entertainment Weekly

    “Vivid and moving . . . The tempo of [Van Meter’s] sentences matches Winter Island’s foggy skies and roiling seas: at once bright and languid, visceral and lyric . . .Van Meter’s debut is an unwavering triumph . . . A coming-of-age that’s as human as it is wild.”
    The New York Times Book Review

    "A beautiful look at how we navigate the pain and heartbreak that comes with being human." 

    “An alluring, atmospheric debut.”

    Creatures evokes a family’s fragile bond as deep as the sea . . . The sensibility of this short, gemlike novel puts Van Meter . . . in league with contemporary novelists for whom humans and their environment are tightly bound together—Lydia Millet, Joy Williams and T.C. Boyle come to mind. And Creatures is studded with lovely, melancholy sentences that shimmer like dark sea glass . . . Van Meter tells that story with empathy and clarity but also evokes the wildness that her setting deserves. Creatures delivers a powerful feeling that we, like Evie, are destined to always feel at least a little adrift.”
    The Los Angeles Times 

    “In fluid and nutrient-rich prose, Van Meter creates a sense of island life that will have even the most dedicated landlubbers tasting salt on their lips.”
    Minneapolis Star Tribune

    “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos . . . A quietly captivating debut.
    Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    “Crissy Van Meter balances fracture and fusion and navigates Evangeline’s story with exquisite, racking grace . . . Filled with the 'pressure of missing things, the leaving of things,' and 'the constant foreboding of implosion,' Crissy Van Meter’s bold debut novel is stamped with a signature, polymetric tension all its own.”
    Foreword Reviews, starred review

    “Crissy Van Meter's Creatures is a lyrical, literary debut that you'll want on your TBR when it comes to stores next winter.”

    “Van Meter's wonderfully un-ordinary debut is rather like the ocean itself: layered, deep, and happening all at once . . . This is a moving, graceful novel of how people change and are changed by natures within and without.”

    “Tender and atmospheric . . . Van Meter expertly and effortlessly brings to life at once her father’s substance abuse and dependence, his doting love for his daughter and loyalty to her absent mother, and his inability to be what Evie needs. His deep mark on Evie’s life, and her feelings toward him, are the book’s beating heart . . . this promising debut sneaks up on the reader, packing a devastating emotional punch.”
    Publishers Weekly

    Creatures is the kind of beautiful book that makes you want to lick the salt from its pages. It's so physically present you can feel the waves hit your body, smell the sea life, hear the roar of the ocean as your hair whips around your face in the breeze. Crissy Van Meter has written a book about the complexities of love and families, yes, but it's also a careful look at intimacy through the lens of a person learning and relearning how to love the people who continually let us down. It's inventive and surprising. The text is tactile; a punch to the heart. It’s one of the best novels I've read this year.”
    —Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author of Mostly Dead Things
    “Crissy Van Meter pulls us into depths of loneliness, sweetness, pain, history, and pulsing vulnerability in prose swift and clear as an ocean current, in Creatures. On Winter Island, time and landscape ache with memory; need spills over in subtle moments of intense connection, fracture, deprivation, and wound; unconditional love may be a concept as unreachable as the mainland, and as isolating. Like water, loss and longing fill the space between each prism of a word in this gorgeous, jewel-tone debut.” 
    —Sarah Gerard, author of Sunshine State

    “At the intersection of the natural world and the human heart, Van Meter explores alcoholism, absence, daughterly loyalties and longing in this slim and beautiful tale that contains a whole aqueous universe in its depths.”
    Melissa Broder, author of The Pisces
    “Wiry, rhythmic, and wrenchingly beautiful, Creatures plumbs the sea-struck heart of a family fractured by longing and grief.”
    Leni Zumas, bestselling author of Red Clocks 

    Creatures is a love story like none other—a synesthetic whale song that submerges you deep inside the exhilaration and exhaustion of love. Father love. Mother love. And most of all, the love of place.”
    Mesha Maren, author of Sugar Run

    "Crissy Van Meter has written a tale of hard-won family forgiveness that doubles, somehow, as a sly parable about climate change, about the eggshell fragility of the island-home we take for granted. Brava."
    —Jonathan Dee, author of The Locals

On Sale
Oct 27, 2020
Page Count
272 pages
Algonquin Books

Crissy Van Meter

Crissy Van Meter

About the Author

Crissy Van Meter grew up in Southern California. Her writing has appeared in Vice, Bustle, Guernica, and Catapult. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. She lives in Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author