Book review 'Wallflowers': The things in which we linger

Reading Wallflowers is a slightly painful experience

Reading Wallflowers, the impressive debut collection of short stories by Eliza Robertson, is a slightly painful experience. Not because of any fault in the prose, she is pitch perfect in the way she externalises her characters’ thoughts. Nor does it have to do with a flaw in pace or plotting.

Rather, it is in the way she takes on the burden of the moment, a particularly difficult moment, and makes it come alive with nerve-tingling exactness.

Conflict is a kind of baton the characters pass from one to the other in these intensely realised stories; one can no more look away from them than one can from a car crash. Which is not to say that these fictions have much in common. They are set in varied corners of the world, from cafes in Lisbon to shared apartments in Marseille. In fact, one of them, Thoughts, Hints and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One’s Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies, is set in what appears to be the 18th century.

The men, women and children who populate these stories share little other than a varying realisation of loss and forfeiture; a special type of grief wafts through nearly every story, connecting these otherwise disparate fictions. Ship’s Log may remain entrenched in the backyard as a young boy digs his way to China, Electric Lady Rag may feature a dancing girl with a King Kong costume. Missing Tiger, Camels Found Alive may be about a ludicrously irresponsible road trip. Yet all the stories in Wallflowers circle around the notion of loss.

Of great significance to all the stories are objects and things. Robertson collects the odd, particular minutiae of a particular person’s existence and constructs, with the persistence of an accomplished set designer, the world in which the story is teased into being.

The first (and arguably the most striking) story in the compilation beautifully illustrates the toolbox of technical skills that Robertson brings to her collection. Titled Who Will Water the Wallflowers, this story is about a girl who is cat-sitting for a neighbour. Held in delicate balance is the potentially disturbing intrusiveness of a married man, who is the neighbour across the lawn, and the quiet loneliness of her mother “twenty paces west,” to where the girl sits.

The story is redolent with the imagery of wetness and fecundity, presaging the sudden burst of floods that will crash upon the minutely realised interiors of the house that the young girl is staying in.

“In the ripe, photosynthetic bathroom,” where an artist has stencilled plants, “Irises spring behind the taps, and fists of hyacinth. Wisteria fills the tub. A spray of lilac peels off the wall and nods into the toilet.” There is menace and fertility here, “the roots on the wall silently sucking.”

The tension builds up with the unwanted attentions of the neighbour, and the sheer isolation of a young girl even though she is only a few doors away from her mother’s care. “She folds her homesickness into one chamber of her heart and tastes it when she chooses, like a salt lick.” So that when the climax of the book does come, it is both surprising, for the deflected tension, and familiar, for the way it has been built up into the symbolism of the story.

Typical of Robertson, this story ends with a sense of suspension, the girl climbs atop a roof and looks around for the Singhs two houses down, or her mother. “But she sees no one.” With an ironic, cruel omniscience, the narrator has already shown us how her mother had filled the pockets of her dressing gown with “river stones,” to sell to the local spa, just as the flood made its way to her; this invests the last image of the girl on the roof with more forlornness. Nor does Robertson hold back from a final deft manoeuvre, offering closure where there is none. “Inside fatty brown water laps at the first stair. It fills the bathroom. The wisteria sucks at it; the hyacinths stand straighter. The peonies open the petals and sing.”

This kind of orchestrated narrating allows Robertson to hit high notes with nearly every story. She proves a sympathetic ear to the voices of both, very young children and the very old, capturing the varied lilt and rhythm of lived experience with pitch-perfect grace.

At some level it is an almost self-consciously acrobatic exercise with respect to the range she exhibits when she flits between types and events. However, by never falling into the pitfalls of typecasting or over-dramatising, Wallflowers maintains its footing and does not lose the reader.

There is enough here to alarm, but also enough to enjoy. Whether Robertson informs us as to how to catch a hummingbird, to get burns off linoleum, or describes the feeling of a tongue “steeped in lime Jee-O” she does so with an innate grace and authenticity.

Karishma Attari is a book critic and freelance writer living in Mumbai. She is working on her coming-of-age novel, I See You

( Source : dc )
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