Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

5. Sonya Taaffe (2018), Forget the Sleepless Shores

This is a collection of short stories whose author is known in this parish as [personal profile] sovay. I hope she won't mind if I proceed to just call her S for the rest of this review, a) to save myself having to keep typing out the code for [personal profile] sovay, and b) to signal that I'm writing about her in a different way here anyway, which bridges both [personal profile] sovay, the DW friend, and Sonya Taaffe, the author.

We've been DW friends for a few years now (probably about four-ish?), and I have been following S's writing career all that time. It is obviously a big passion and a serious commitment for her - she regularly posts to say that she has had an individual short story or poem published, attends readings and cons to present / talk about her work (in pre-COVID times anyway), and of course reported the publication of this book a couple of years ago. I've been a little slow to get round to acquiring and reading it, but not because I had any doubt that it would be good. I'd already read a couple of the individual stories in it anyway which S had shared, and been extremely impressed. I'm just slow, is all.

I've never met S in real life, as she lives in Boston, but she tells her DW readers a lot about herself, and has clearly put a lot of the same self into her stories too. So I had very much the same experience reading this book as I did when reading my friend Andrew Hickey's novel Head of State (LJ / DW) of recognising the person I know through DW in the stories. S's passion for the sea, knowledge of Classical myth and literature, Jewish heritage, and queer identity are all here, combined with a fine-detail observation of urban landscapes and a sense of colour and the best words for conveying it vividly which really struck me in the first of her stories that I read.

I'm not going to write about every single story, because there are twenty-two in the book altogether, but here are some notes on my favourites ones and what I liked about them.

Notes Toward the Classification of the Lesser Moly - this is only four pages long but very poignant and clever. Ostensibly a botanical account of a plant named after a mythic archetype mentioned in the Odyssey, it is also the story of the British serviceman who identified it on Crete in the 1940s, his love affair with a local man, their role in the island's resistance to the Germans and the ancient gods who still walk the land. I really liked its sense of a landscape infused with deep history and the presence of the divine.

The Boatman's Cure - in this story, a woman named Delia seeks out the help of a drowned boatman who calls himself Evelyn and has an oar which may or may not once have belonged to Odysseus. He is a sort of psychopomp, and she needs him to help her exorcise from the basement of her old family home the spirit of her sister, who slit her own wrists there as a teenager. I found the whole story very absorbing, but I think I liked the stuff around the oar best. Like all the best sacred artefacts, its provenance is extremely sketchy. Evelyn tells Delia, "Most likely it's a case of two or three traditions conflated with at least one forgery at worst, armchair antiquarianism and wishful thinking at best." Anyway, it does the job.

The Dybbuk in Love - I think I was only really half-conscious of the concept of a dybbuk before reading this collection, so I'll note for anyone in the same position that it is basically a spirit of the dead which can possess living bodies. That makes it a very good vehicle for exploring people's sense of the weight and legacy of the past. In this story, Menachem Schuyler, who died aged 27 a century ago is in love with Clare. In order to speak to and interact with her, he keeps taking over the bodies of people she casually encounters, so that their spirit vanishes out of their eyes and his takes over. He wants to tell her about his life, his family, and his past, all otherwise forgotten. But she is very aware that this isn't fair to the people the dybbuk possesses, and is forced to try to avoid their company so that he doesn't get the opportunity. Despite this, she can't bring herself to actually hate him either - she is curious about him and empathetic towards him. Eventually, she solves the problem of him possessing her friends by simply inviting him into her own head, where they can co-exist together.

Like Milkweed - in this story, the world is full of giant orange monarch butterflies which suddenly appeared without explanation, and nobody knows why they're there or whether they're sentient. Some people want to fuck them anyway. We see them through the eye of Alicja, who is pondering one as it perches in her apartment. As she reflects, eventually someone remembered the Greek concept of the psyche (roughly soul, though it's an imperfect translation) with the wings of a butterfly. She is aware that the one in her apartment may be Kath, her girlfriend who left her and disappeared, but she has no way of communicating with it to find out.

Imperator Noster - another very short but excellent story, of only three pages this time. I'm going to hazard a guess that it was inspired by the Torlonia relief of the harbour at Ostia. In the story, a great sea god, Retiarius, rises from Mare Nostrum at Ostia and exchanges gifts with the emperor of Rome. I love a good sea god, especially the one who holds the clashing rocks open in Jason and the Argonauts, so this was always going to be a winner with me. Two of the envoys charged with sending the gifts between them form a bond, and after the younger of the two dies at sea he appears to the older in a dream. That too is a common motif in ancient literature, e.g. in Ovid's story of Ceyx and Alcyone, though I'll leave S to say what models she may or may not have had in mind when she wrote it.

The Salt House - this is the first of two stories in the collection about people who leave human society and go down into the sea. This one is told from the point of view of a man, Alex, whose wife, Annata, left for the sea taking his then three-year-old daughter with her. He meets with the now-teenage daughter at the beach, with all the awkwardness of a divorced dad trying to connect with a child he sees too infrequently. Gradually, we learn how his wife inherited her connection with the sea from her great-grandfather, a seagoing man who drowned yet still returned to her great-grandmother while the loss of his ship hadn't yet been reported back home and fathered a child by her. Again, Classical references enrich the story. The great-grandfather's ship was named for the sea-nymph Galatea (another story told by Ovid, actually), while Alex tries to tell Annata before she leaves him that he will hold onto her as Peleus did to Thetis (another sea-nymph, sometimes), with echoes of Tam Lin.

And Black Unfathomable Lakes - another short one (three pages). Though it doesn't say so explicitly and the characters aren't named, S sent me a copy of this one after I had written about the novelisation of Brides of Dracula (1960) in my own journal (LJ / DW), so I happen to know that it is essentially Van Helsing and Marianne fan fiction. It's about how the two of them travel from town to town after the end of the film, hunting vampires, and the toll it takes on each of them collectively and individually. As the opening line asks, "If a man who fights monsters becomes a monster himself, what of the woman who sleeps with him?" I felt it captured both the driven intensity and the glimpses of tenderness and vulnerability in Peter Cushing's Van Helsing perfectly.

The Face of the Waters - this story is set in the city of my birth, though I didn't fully assimilate that into my reading of it until about half-way through. I recognised the (fairly distinctive) name of the pub outside which the action takes place, of course, and my suspicions were strengthened by the canalside setting. But stories about Birmingham are so few and far between that I didn't want to commit to reading it as such until I was absolutely sure - especially since I have no idea whether S has ever been there. But eventually the clues became too conclusive to discount. It is essentially a story about a sort of canal-nymph who saves the main point-of-view character from drowning after he slips in, though we also gradually learn that have she became this nymph after jumping into the canal to take her own life. A couple of references to Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series and Romano-British spring-goddesses such as Coventina, Arnemetia and Sulis help to situate S's thinking. This particular canal-nymph entered her watery domain in exactly the era when I too was going to exactly that sort of pub (and occasionally even that very one), making it very easy for me to picture her. Possibly the story could done with a little extra Brum-picking. The main character is almost exactly the same age as me and was born (like most Brummies) in the same hospital, but when challenged about whether or not he really 'belongs' in Birmingham he responds that he was born in 'BWH' - an acronym which I not only would never use but actually had to Google to check that it meant what I thought it meant. Still, that is a very minor quibble. It was great to have this story and be able to revisit the haunts of my youth through it.

Exorcisms - this is another story about a dybbuk-type being, this time a woman who died before her lover came over to America as an immigrant, living inside his skull as a spirit through the transition, and then that of his sister and descendants after he too died. Details as the story unfolds reveal that the immigrants were Jewish, and that the descendant whose head the dybbuk-woman is now occupying is a female writer. So it felt like a very personal story about being a Jewish descendant of immigrants, and carrying that sense of family lineage in one's head.

The Trinitite Golem - J. Robert Oppenheimer encounters a golem who may or may not be the product of his nuclear testing, but has certainly come to him because it believes only he can destroy it. He can't, though, so it takes its leave of him and goes on to continue existing in the world. I knew S was well versed in golem lore, as she commented about it when I did a big post about the golem books and film I had absorbed before going to Prague in 2017 (LJ / DW), and that knowledge shows up in references to Prometheus and Rabbi Loew. But this is (as ever) very much her own distinctive take on the motif, using it to put Oppenheimer face to face with the unstoppable, inhuman consequences of his work, and in terms which draw again on the narratives of his Jewish immigrant background.

All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts - like The Salt House, this is another story of people going into the sea, and again because they have a special hereditary connection with it. The parameters are slightly different, though, particularly in that this story is about a whole group of people rather than one woman and her child. Most members of an extended family group begin to change physically at a certain age, developing gills, scales, webbing etc until they really have no choice but to transition into the ocean. That has led to persecution and a need for secrecy and hiding. But some members of the family don't change, which is almost equally difficult and distressing for them. So it is sort of about liminality and the sense of being half-part of a minority group but not wholly belonging to it. It's very good.

The Depth Oracle - the final story in the collection and a strong ending. It's about a woman who is a sort of sea-witch, and receives reports of what is coming from the body of a drowned man who washes periodically to shore. Which is all fine and pleasingly gothic-gruesome, except then we slip into flashbacks of her with a male partner who is dotingly in love with her, even while she is only really devoted to her rituals and divinations. The two of them go out in a boat together to pursue her latest magics which he doesn't fully understand, and then suddenly comes to understand all too clearly when she ties him to an anchor and chucks it overboard. So he is the drowned man, whom she only really appreciates once he has become her oracle. It includes some passages in the second person (e.g. "She invited you in, or you might still be standing on her rotted steps"), addressed to a person who has come to her seeking through her the wisdom of the oracle. It's the least frequently used voice in fiction, but it felt really effective here, making those passages very vivid and creating a sense of complicity in the story and in the death of the man who had become the oracle. I really liked it.

In short, a very impressive and enjoyable collection which I highly recommend. S has a real gift for taking established literature, myth and history, combining it with close observation and transforming it into something completely new and unexpected. Here's to her further success as a writer.

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Tags: birmingham, books, books read 2020, classical literature, classical receptions, friends, golems, paganism, peter cushing, reviews

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