Christy Ann Conlin
House of Anansi, 2019
Reviewed by Giovanni Ralaisa
Christy Ann Conlin’s short fiction collection of 11 mesmerizing stories returns to characters in her previous gothic novels Heave (2002) and The Memento (2016), and to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and the communities between two mountains on the Bay of Fundy. Its rural, isolated location is familiar to Conlin who lives there with her husband (Wolfville’s Conundrum press owner) and three sons, and has grown out of challenges as foreboding as her titles – “Full Bleed,” “Dead Time,” and “Beyond All Things Is the Sea.” Her own experience with divorce, multiple family deaths, a bout with cancer, contrast her inventions – teen murderers, runaway brides, single and absent parents, devilish children and more.
Each story is portentous, yet often droll in the middle of its darkness. Conlin illuminates our everyday stresses and obsessions, but doesn’t hesitate to be candid when called for, as in this conversation about Canada in which Viola says, “Canadians aren’t as nice as everyone seems to think. It’s easy to be a coward underneath all that beer and bacon.”
That blunt honesty is characteristic of her protagonists Lucy, Isabella, Viola, Adam, and Daisy. From mothers and daughters who differ so vastly they cannot get along, to the German teacher so far from home, to the insomniac on the streets, Conlin’s characters are real and outspoken. She describes her own style as “Alice Munro meets David Lynch.”
These moody family sagas contain an element of the fantastic, mysterious and suspenseful.
A widower takes his late wife’s elderly relatives on an annual outing or a woman travels to home to piece together the mystery of “women evanescing” following her grandmother’s disappearance.
Each story navigates family, home, marriage, and travel: Isabella is a girl who burns to tell the truth story in “Dead Time,”; Viola in “The Diplomat” is a Chinese woman who teaches German and watches her husband Henry who “shut his eyes and was quiet for a moment before he took Viola’s hand and kissed the palm of her hand”; and Soon and Late, a story told in second-person POV, tells how they were nicknamed for the order in which they were born.
They begin with a unique hook like “Eat any eyeballs lately?” or “I am the consort of scarlet fire beings and sirens of blue ice” and their poetic and sensory imagery reveal characters who sometimes feel exaggerated, but their vivid and emotionally candid narratives make it difficult to turn from the page. The author also illuminates the everyday: Isabella’s father fails to take care of himself due to stress and Conlin does not beautify it, but rather casts it in bright light where no one can miss it. The grittiness of her stories works with her blunt tone.
Conlin’s stories are unabashedly sharp and outspoken, but it is this absorbing authenticity that makes Watermark a unique experience. These stories are uncomfortable, never more so than when they capture the true horrors of family dysfunction – perpetual disapproval, drugs and alcohol addiction, breast cancer, nasty husbands, sexual abuse, hippie fathers, lost siblings and the truth that “Even as adults we never stop trying to complete the childhood story. We never stop trying to find the ending.”
Heave was a Globe and Mail “Top 100” book, a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, shortlisted for the Atlantic Fiction and the Dartmouth Book Awards and longlisted for CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Conlin hosted the 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. She teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies’ online Creative Writing program.