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In Case of Emergency, Break Glass Paperback – January 20, 2016
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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The first of these novellas, “The Sound in High Cold Places,” is my favorite. (You have to have a favorite, right?) It contains so much of what I love in Van Arsdale’s work. There is an assurance in her writing that best expresses itself in deep and patient development of character. “High Cold Places” is set in an arctic culture circa 3,000 BCE. It is written in an imagined voice of that time, as if that time was the only time, both in the sense that this time is the immediate “now” and time as it has always been. It is a literary achievement of note, to create a voice that strikes us as so authentic, and that shows no evident self-consciousness of our own time.
“High Cold Places” may attract most attention for the appearance in the story of a love interest who is neither clearly male or clearly female. We might expect the story to try and inform our own efforts to understand sexuality and gender, but again (marvelously) the story speaks clearly and solely to its own time. The relationship between the story’s heroine and this second character is presented as a question of both love and survival, where these two things are neither in conflict nor in harmony. Enhancing our understanding of this relationship is the heroine’s nascent inner monologue, which we (and the heroine) understand as something new in this ancient culture. The overall effect is simply stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a similar work that so easily and seamlessly placed me within the context of such an alien world.
The remaining two novellas are present-day stories of women who put the man in their lives to the test by vacationing with them in Europe. While the title story is terrific, I liked “Conversion” (the final story) a bit better. There’s more going on for me in this story: how we belong and don’t belong in a loved one’s family, the experience of being the guest of a couple with a terrible relationship, and the awkwardness of being an unofficial U.S. ambassador when travelling abroad. But what I noticed most about this story was how it wasn’t exactly in focus. It is a story told by a protagonist who knows her experience is a story worth telling, but who (in her words) is not yet quite able to make out the shape of what happened to her. In this way, the story becomes a story of how we find a way to tell our stories, how we find what to emphasize and what to leave out, and how we come to explain portions of the story that aren’t exactly explicable. While we value the polished story, there is much to recommend a story that is still in the raw, so to speak, and where the protagonist has not yet come to understand her story in a way that makes total sense to her. This story has me thinking about how we form narratives, and this is one of my favorite topics.
Overall, this collection is well worth a careful read. Van Arsdale has a gift with language that is a joy to experience. Reading her, I feel in capable and trustworthy hands.
The most threatening territory—though also the most familiar to the characters--is found in the first novella, “The Sound in High Cold Places,” set where tundra meets ocean, a site occupied by a very tiny Inuit village. Our focus here is on Simut, newly widowed, not yet aware that she’s carrying a child, and fearing that “she has no man, and in this time and place, that could spell her swift, sure end.” This is a subsistence community, one which needs the efforts of both man and woman to eke out survival, and she has only her brother, who’s “like a child even though he’s a grown man” and can offer only a little assistance. There are only six in the village: Simut and her brother and two other couples. If food becomes even more scarce than usual, Simut and her child-brother will likely starve.
Into this desperate situation comes a stranger, a man-woman paddling a kayak from the north, no doubt banished from his own village for reasons we have to guess. Van Arsdale uses “s/he” and “hir” to refer to Imiut. a quiet reminder that though this individual has a man’s skills and can therefore supplement Simut’s own skills and make up for her brother’s limits, a traditional marriage isn’t likely. The tiny village nonetheless accepts Imiut, who brings another hunter into the community, a possibility of surviving the coming winter. “The Sound in High Cold Places” becomes both the quietest and most desperate of love stories, and one of the loveliest.
The other two central characters are more conventional, their relationships in their own ways also precarious. Both find themselves in Europe with their lovers, trying to make their ways through strange landscapes and relationships which are difficult in very different ways: one involves a new and terminally unfaithful lover, the other an extended visit to a lover’s obnoxious brother.
All three of these women find themselves in landscapes which are partly familiar—France and Spain are, after all, Western nations; Simut has lived her entire life where tundra meets ocean—but at best difficult, and in relationships which may not work. In the title novella (also the shortest), the relationship quickly reveals itself as disastrous, the central character returning home alone. That title novella takes an unusual task: sharing with the reader what the character does not know will happen next. It’s risky, and works wonderfully.
The final piece, “Conversion,” adds to the character’s unease not only the generally obnoxious behavior of the brother-in-law, but also his bigotry when she reveals that she’s a convert to Judaism—another point of concern as she ponders just what her true identity might be.
These novellas nicely capture, in very different ways, the myriad uncertainties of human lives. Enjoy!