Review: Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner excels in making us see the ordinary in an exalted way
Fine short stories, like good poetry, render the familiar strange. And I don’t mean in the genre-specific “magic realism” kind of way. Only that the mundane is seen in a different light. Coaxing us to summon uncanny connections, and appreciate the utterly bewildering richness of people’s everyday lives.
Eliza Robertson’s debut collection, Wallflowers, is filled with stories that achieve this literary feat—beginning with Who Will Water The Wallflowers?, a claustrophobic tale of a girl, her mother, a cat, her odd neighbour, and a flood. Set in a quiet, nondescript suburb, it links the lives of identical-house inhabitants through fleeting meetings, and cinematic cuts, all the while building up an atmosphere of ominous watery catastrophe. The rain starts, “fat toads fall from the sky and fill the hanging geranium pots. The soil cannot contain it; water courses over the thin terracotta bowls, like open mouths”.
What Robertson excels at in story after story is the imaginative leap, the ability to dismiss the prepositions, and boldly call rain “fat toads” or artichokes the colour of “lizard bellies”. Her language is infused with a crisp, irreverent freshness, surprising the reader frequently with odd comparisons and juxtapositions.
In Roadnotes, done in epistolary form, Sid writes to his brother Spencer while driving cross-country to “pursue autumn”. “To track the metamorphosis of deciduous woodlands. Where the leaf turns, there turn I.” As his journey progresses, we learn of the death of their mother, a troubled had–been artist, and how he is searching for the only self–portrait that survived her “burn everything I created” madness. It had been auctioned and sold years ago, and his quest is to find it, and return it to their keeping.
In the last story, We Walked On Water, a brother remembers his lost sister, Liv. Both swimmers, they would train together in the lakes, and compete. “On race day, Liv used to eat sun.” Her premature ventricular contraction is “medspeak for your heart skips a beat” or tempo rubato, Italian for stolen time, perhaps all we get with the ones we love. Though it is not the strongest story in the collection, Robertson ends with beautiful lines on loss: “I read once that grief is like waiting. Waiting to sleep. Waiting to wake up.”
A more effective story is Ship’s Log, narrated through the “logbook” of Captain Oscar Finch on HMCS RUPERT, also nine–year–old Oscar digging a hole in his backyard and sailing to China. The child’s voice, serious in his endeavour to document his journey’s progress, makes for lovely hilarity, until we realize that his “Navigating Officer” Clementine Finch, also nan or grandma, is grieving for her husband, a naval officer whose old uniform still hangs at the door. The hole Oscar digs and his grandmother’s depression deepen, leading nowhere, prophetic of another death that takes place at the end of the story.
Robertson, who graduated in creative writing from the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, displays in her writing the kind of play and experimentation with structure that the degree delights in. Where Have You Fallen, Have You Fallen? unfolds backwards, beginning with a Native American folk tale, and catapulting slowly into the lives of two children who meet in the woods. Dense, evocative, and the most “magical” of her pieces, it’s a complex narrative which fortunately bolsters the story rather than taking away from it. Electric Lady Rag, though a mere 20 pages long, sweeps through time and three generations of lady dancers as swiftly as a novel.
Thought, Hints, And Anecdotes Concerning Points Of Taste And The Art Of Making One’s Self Agreeable is written as a prim “Handbook for Ladies”, and divided into such sections as “Fashion and Dress”, “On Mending”, “Stains: Tips And Clues”, and cleverly, devastatingly, tells the story of an abused wife, and her plot for quiet revenge.
While thematically wide-ranging, Robertson’s characters tend to be women or young girls—suffering partners, patients who have undergone hysterectomies, wives stuck in loveless marriages, a mother crippled by post-natal depression. This last evocatively told in Slimebank Taxonomy, where a woman and her little nephew—in a visionary, almost miraculous scene—save migratory storks at night. Everywhere there are birds. Hummingbirds in Worried Women’s Guide, paper storks in My Sister Sang.
As in all collections, a few stories droop beneath the weight of pedantry, or turn brittle with narrative flimsiness, but most are touched with delicacy and wildness. Robertson has a flair, and an eye, for the ancient grief, and unexpected joy.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats On Land: A Collection Of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel.
To read an excerpt from the book, click here.
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