Christy Ann Conlin’s first collection of her short stories is entitled Watermark, and while I haven’t read either of her two previous (and highly acclaimed) full-length novels, I came away from Watermark suitably impressed with her short fiction work. There are eleven stories here, all in fine form, and no two alike, yet Ms. Conlin’s voice throughout is strong and sure, once you get the feel for it. The titles are as interesting as the stories themselves: Eyeball in Your Throat, Dead Time, Full Bleed, Occlusion, Desire Lines and The Flying Squirrel Sermon, just to name some of the more cryptic ones. Her style has been called “North Atlantic Gothic” and this is most evident in The Flying Squirrel Sermon, in which a young woman, Ondine, who is searching out the truth of old family stories encounters an enigmatic old woman living alone in an old farmhouse near the sea. The tension and mystery build as the woman talks and talks and Ondine begins to notice strange little things around her such as previously dry fountain which is now running:
“You have to be careful telling stories. Some of them aren’t yours to tell, you understand. Bad things happen when you steal them or change them. Did you know this?”
Ondine looked away, toward the small pond where something jumped. The fountain was running now. Maybe it had been the whole time and Ondine hadn’t noticed.
The woman gives Ondine what looks like iced tea, and calls it a “tonic” that will revive her. For the rest of the story, Ondine appears to listen, enthralled, trancelike to the woman’s unravelling of her history and the mysterious disappearances of her mother and sister. Then comes the beautiful ending at which, if the hairs on the back of your neck are not already standing, they will be. There’s a little nod to H.P. Lovecraft in The Flying Squirrel Sermon.
Dead Time is a troubling story about Isabella a young woman who is incarcerated for the death of Lulu, her boyfriend’s former girlfriend. That Isabella is extremely paranoid about her relationship with Sergei there is no doubt. Her exasperated father tells her:
“Isabella, when your mind is made up it’s like trying to stir dried concrete,” I thought that was stupid because concrete is so ugly, and I felt like kicking him.
Isabella’s narrative continues:
But here I am, surrounded by concrete, I told the warden how ugly this place is and it was the one time he laughed. “Why would we want to pretend you’re somewhere pleasant?” he asked me. “This isn’t a boarding school, Isabella. This isn’t a hotel. Or some storybook palace. You need to grow up and take responsibility for yourself.”
I would have liked to shove chopsticks in his temples, nice and slow, right into his brain.
“Whatever,” I said.
In the touching story The Diplomat, we find Viola, a native of Campobello Island, in Germany taking a German language course. Another student, Henry (his English name, for he is Vietnamese) is attentive to her and a relationship slowly develops, even though both have family back in their respective countries of origin. Viola has Ben, who never wants to leave Campobello, but Viola yearns to see more of the world. She tells Henry (the “diplomat”):
“He’ll never know his dad, but he tries at the grave. He really believes by staying on Campobello Island he can somehow be close to him and have the life his father threw away. Ben won’t leave the island, not even for me.”
Henry took her hand. “I understand your Ben. In China, we pray to our ancestors. The old ways are slow to pass. My father was sad when I went to Beijing. He said to complete the circle of life one must bury one’s father. I laughed at him, Viola, but I laughed less as I grew older. It is our history with the people we love which binds us together. Being close to the graves of the dead has life in it even if you cannot see this.” He took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and cheeks, and kept holding her hand.
All of Ms. Conlin’s stories in this collection have an intrinsic beauty and a raison d’etre. There is no filler here! In a recent blog post at the House of Anansi Press website, Ms. Conlin stated:
“George Saunders talks about keeping the magic of a story throughout the writing process, and by extension, creating that experience for the reader. I see this as fictional sparkle, which is embedded in an artistic honesty which allows each story to find its own shape and form. Each story has its own unique magic and sparkle to find, during the writing process and for the reader.”
How true! These eleven stories have that “unique magic and sparkle” and Ms. Conlin is a “reader’s writer” to be sure. Naomi at Consumed by Ink said in her review of Watermark:
“What I love most about Conlin’s work is her inclination to write about ‘home’. Whether a character has ever lived anywhere but home; has always longed to leave home; left home but has carried with them a pull to come back. Sometimes home is a place of love, other times a place of terror or grief. Often, home for these characters is in the mountains of the Annapolis Valley. What a perfect setting for dark pasts, tragedy, ghosts, and secrets (as well as peace and belonging).”
I am putting Watermark on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Best Short Fiction category. Five stars!
Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin
Astoria (a House of Anansi Press imprint)
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