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Like a cactus: prickly on the outside, with a sweet center,
This review is from: Battleborn (Hardcover)
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"Battle Born" (this title presents it as one word) is one of the semi-official monikers for the state of Nevada, the setting of many of these gorgeous and precise stories. It's a great title for this collection, which presents us with a series of characters whose circumstances suggest that they should be damaged beyond human recognition--but who in fact possess an inspiring sweetness and who long for connection. Though scarred by battle, each still seeks the faith necessary for birth and rebirth.
I don't want to spoil the book so a couple of examples will have to suffice: the final story of the collection ("Graceland") describes the precarious relationship of two sisters, in their 20s, whose mother has recently committed suicide. Both sisters are tiny in stature; both are involved with much larger men. The married sister is pregnant and attempting in the accoutrements of her apartment to recreate the dead mother's house (a recording of Paul Simon's "Graceland" is one of these). The other sister, who narrates the story, is so traumatized in her own way that one can scarcely imagine that she can help--but she does realize "I am the only one who knows what it means, this compiling. I am the only one in Gwen's life who can see what she's doing." This brief plot summary may sound like such a story could tip into sentimentality (especially if I tell you that the Disney movie "Dumbo" also features prominently in the tale). But Watkins' talent and discipline and her tremendously impressive command over language keep this collection far away from that defect. Instead, when the narrator speaks up ("And I said, 'What is WRONG with you?" When what I meant to say was, Are you okay?"), the complex ambivalence of the sisterly relationship is unmistakeable and beautifully managed.
Vaye's control extends beyond dialogue to narrative and description as well. Each of these ten stories is perfectly crafted. Another favorite is "Man o War," the story of a 67-year-old divorced scavenger who discovers an almost dead 16-year-old girl when searching for left-over fireworks on a dried-out lake bed. He revives, feeds, cleans, and clothes her, and listens to her dispiriting history. It's not that this story ends on a high note, but the fact of his care is the bedrock on which it rests. An example of how the descriptive language reflects the emotional tone: "Nearest the sun the sky was the wild red of a wound, like the thing had to forced below the horizon." The form of the short story, of which these are brilliant examples, is not usually heavily plot driven, but the reader who likes a well-told tale will not be disappointed (the longest story, "The Diggings," set during the Gold Rush, is particularly eventful and could easily have been expanded into a novel).
Repeating themes of the collection include courtship, marriage, pregnancy (and abortion), and sister- and brotherhood (as she says to her sisters in the acknowledgments , "This book is you"). It's not an optimistic or uplifting set of stories; most do not have "happy endings," but the vision of human existence is poignant, tense, deliciously sweet. Some readers may be attracted to this book by the knowledge that Claire Vaye Watkins is the daughter of a member of the Charles Manson group, and the first contribution, "Ghosts, Cowboys," does touch on this topic. But Watkins should not need the sensationalist connection to be recognized as a major talent.