Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson

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Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A debut collection of 17 virtuosic short stories from a 27-year-old Canadian. Themes of moving on from loss and finding love amidst gentle madness play out over images of the natural world. Many of the stories are set on the edge of North American wilderness.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408856796

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Eliza Robertson won the Man Booker Scholarship and Curtis Brown Prize while completing her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Wallflowers is already a bestseller in Robertson's native Canada. There is quite some variety across the seventeen stories. Broadly speaking, though, there are a few themes: moving on from loss, finding love in the midst of gentle madness, and interactions with the natural world, often on the edge of Canada's British Columbia wilderness.

Many characters define themselves against a lost lover or family member. For instance, the mapmaking narrator of 'Here Be Dragons' sees his dead fiancée everywhere he goes, from Portugal to Tanzania. The boy who keeps a 'Ship's Log' determines to dig from Ontario to China, all the while wishing his grandfather would come back. In a backwards narrative (going from Part Eight to One), 'Where have you fallen, have you fallen?' shows orphaned Natalie finding a home and mythological meaning in her uncle's First Nations community. During a swimming race, one sibling drowns and another survives in 'We Walked on Water' (for which Robertson won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013).

Sometimes loss doesn't mean death, but an end to possibilities. In my favourite story, 'Worried Woman's Guide,' Bea has surgery to remove her ovaries. Female cancers run in the family; she foresees precautionary measures piling up until she's lost all that once defined her: 'Her future would be breastless and bloodless—pre-pubescent, post-woman.' As she deals with symptoms of early menopause and accepts she will never be a mother, her ex-husband's son, Huck, takes care of her. With an attitude to match his plucky American lit name and an unusual career of hummingbird ringing, Huck offers a glimpse of a life still full of wonder. Hummingbirds and the nectar they drink symbolize enduring sweetness and light.

Madness is also present in varying degrees, from a woman's extreme postpartum depression and odd habit of catching dead creatures in a butterfly net ('Slimebank Taxonomy') to a man's snap decision to steal circus animals from a carpark ('Missing Tiger, Camels Found Alive'). The nameless protagonist of 'Sea Life' seems normal enough – until she takes the neighbours' dog hostage overnight. The extravagantly named 'Thoughts, Hints, and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One's Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies' conceals beneath its advice book format a Mad Men-esque desperate housewife willing to do anything to free herself from her husband's expectations of perfection.

You're always aware of the natural world while reading these stories. Whether it's the hummingbirds in 'Worried Woman's Guide,' the dead fox and ducks in 'Slimebank Taxonomy,' or the geographical features the cartographer maps in 'Here Be Dragons,' it's hard to escape the sense that nature has these characters in thrall. That's especially true in the title story, 'Who Will Water the Wallflowers?' (echoing the title of Lorrie Moore's novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?), which is overshadowed by an impending flood.

My other favourite story, 'Roadnotes,' combines the elements of bereavement and nature. Sidney has quit her job at a library and gone on a road trip to retrieve a self-portrait of her dead mother. It just so happens that she's also in time to join America's hordes of 'leaf peepers': 'My plan is to pursue autumn. To track the metamorphosis of deciduous woodlands. Where the leaf turns, there turn I.' In a series of lively letters to her brother, Spencer, she plots a cross-country journey through dying leaves to find a final remnant of their mother.

One last story worth mentioning is 'L'Étranger' (a finalist for the CBC Short Story Prize), about two flatmates in Marseille. From the start their habits clash. Ukrainian Irina, with her obnoxious eating and grooming rituals, seems peculiar to the point of mental illness. She and the narrator engage in silent stand-offs and petty acts of revenge, until a surprising development helps her see Irina as a real person. Anyone who has ever had a weird housemate will find reasons to nod along with this one.

I might have preferred a more focussed collection of the ten best stories (at just over 300 pages, this is a bit long), but the breadth does mean that every reader should find something to like. There's an even mix of first- and third-person perspectives, and the settings and scenarios are diverse enough that you never feel you've read the same story twice. Robertson's language is always fresh, as in 'Her giggles rise into the banana leaves like bubbles inside a glass bottle of Fanta' and 'the moon is sickled enough to hang a coat.' She is currently at work on her first novel, while completing a PhD at East Anglia. I'll be keen to read what she comes out with next.

Further reading suggestion: A couple recent short story collections we enjoyed are Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee and Honeydew by Edith Pearlman. The stories of It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun share a theme of physical and emotional injury.

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Buy Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson at Amazon.com.


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