Book Review: Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson

September 16, 2014

9781620408155Eliza Robertson has collected quite a trophy case in her short career–she’s won three national fiction contests in Canada, been a finalist for the Journey Prize and the CBC Short Story Prize, and recently won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her first collection of short stories, Wallflowers, is out on September 16th from Bloomsbury. It’s telling that the book is about three hundred pages and will be released in hardcover: Bloomsbury believes in this new writer, and is willing to put resources behind her. With that in mind, I had high expectations when I began reading Wallflowers. I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

Those pages practically zoomed by. Each of the seventeen stories was so unique and well-crafted that I was easily caught up in them, flipping page after page to discover what happened next. The opening story, “Who Will Water the Wallflowers?” sets the tone for the collection. In this piece, a teenage girl cat-sits for her neighbor in their suburban subdivision. She is separated from her mother by only a few sidewalks, but able to test her independence. Suddenly, the dike above the neighborhood breaks and floods the streets. She climbs up to the roof as water begins to fill the house, and looks around for her mother, for her neighbors. She sees no one. She is isolated.

Many of Robertson’s stories find the characters in some version of isolation. It is very much a collection about being alone, in one fashion or another, and yet is so filled with vibrant images and fully felt emotion that it is never a lonely read. Her characters, often women, are taken as full people with complicated motivations and inner lives, and the reader feels like she knows these characters, perhaps even a little too well.

The collection is also a bit experimental, playing with form in a way that enhances story. One gem is “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?” which is a story told backwards in eight parts. It can be difficult to create a story like this, where the beginning and ending must both function as themselves and the other, yet Robertson manages to craft a satisfying tale that reveals measuredly as it progresses. And there is also my personal favorite, “Thoughts, Hints, and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One’s Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies,” which co-opts the format of an informational pamphlet for female comportment and spins it to tell the story of a “proper lady” who uses these rigid rules to craft her own freedom.

Of course, in this collection, Robertson also demonstrates her skill in traditional forms, particularly in “L’Étranger,” which was the piece shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. In this piece she explores the fraught relationship between roommates, including one scene that, while beautifully written, has permanently put me off Nutella:

I wanted to dump the slugs on her bed, but she had locked her bedroom door. Instead, I opened her chestnut spread. I pinched a slug with my fingers and released it into the jar. When the body uncurled, I pressed it to the bottom. I added a second slug. I smoothed the paste over their eyespots.

Yet this passive aggressive vengeance is counterbalanced by a quiet, emotionally complicated scene: the roommate finds a lump in her breast, and asks the narrator to confirm it.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how a lump feels.”

“Lumpy,” she said. She stared hard out the window like she might cry.

I continued to probe her breast, then felt it under her skin. The lump was small but firm, wimpled like the shell of a walnut. I lowered my hand.

“You feel it,” she said.

“I’m really not an expert.”

“But you feel it.”

I nodded. She nodded too. She left her robe untied and walked out of the room.

As a whole, the collection stands as evidence of a truly great new literary talent with a mastery of craft, character, and subtlety. Robertson can handle the quick turn as well as she can build the slow burn. Her short stories put me in mind of Margaret Atwood, another Canadian author whose stories also often center on well-crafted female characters. If this collection is any indication, Robertson’s future work looks exceedingly promising, and I would be excited to read any novel she might write.

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pub date: September 16, 2014

Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood

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