What was it the anthropologist said? Claudia wonders as she types up her notes. “Oh, yes. ‘An observer is under the bed. A participant observer is in it.’ She doubted he foresaw her situation.” Because in “Subduction,” Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel, Claudia is in it, in a big way. She has just left the embrace of Peter, a member of the Makah tribe she’s ostensibly observing.

Claudia has recently fled to Neah Bay, a Native whaling village on the Pacific coast, to salve her wounded heart with work after her husband left her for another woman — her own sister. Claudia aims to conduct an anthropological study of Makah culture focused on one village elder, Maggie. Complicating the picture, Maggie’s prodigal son, Peter, has just returned to tend to his mother after 20 years away.

A second complication: Maggie has begun to lose the memory that Claudia hoped to plumb, and she has become a hoarder. Her trailer home is packed with mildewing papers, toys, clothing, flotsam like key chains and plastic food baskets, and blankets — “the kind Peter remembered from every couch of his childhood . . . thick velour in royal blue and crimson, covered with airbrushed wolves howling at the moon.”

Where Peter sees junk to be consigned to dumpsters, Claudia finds significance. As she puts it in her field notes, Maggie has been “buying and saving these items for a potlatch that she wants to host for Peter, who she believes is in line to receive [proof] of chiefly lineage.” Maggie is also harboring a secret, the dark truth behind Peter’s departure 20 years ago.

At its heart, “Subduction” is all about stories — the stories that constitute personal, family and cultural identity and, perhaps more important here, the stories that people tell, about themselves and to themselves, to make life meaningful and livable.

While Peter tries to reconcile his own story with the Native tradition his mother so desperately wants him to accept, Claudia is trying to incorporate them both into hers, as an anthropologist seeking professional legitimacy, and as a betrayed woman seeking clarity and comfort — which mostly takes the form of sex, and what rip-roaring sex it is. This is, at times, a welcome respite from Claudia’s exhaustive self-examination. As she herself puts it: “What a relief to be outside herself, if only for a moment, in his company.”

As the characters make their winding way toward the vaunted potlatch, there are passages of quiet beauty, deep emotion and sharp observation. Claudia’s “headache expanded like a dying star,” Young writes. But lyricism and passion vie throughout with an academic impulse not unlike Claudia’s own: “She’d had unprotected sex with the son of her best hope for a meaningful qualitative study,” Claudia considers. And of that wildly inappropriate union, this whip-smart, if uneven, novel is the rightful offspring.

Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”


By Kristen Millares Young

Red Hen. 272 pp. $16.95