Sydney Warner Brooman
Invisible Publishing, 2021
Reviewed by Chris (Seabacola) Beaton
The Pump is an unnerving linked story collection that is a tour of its titular town in crisis: beavers are eating people and there’s something in the water warping people’s bodies, minds, and souls. Nature is the root of this disaster, but is it truly to blame?
A trigger warning feels appropriate for this book as its morbid tales can make one feel both uncomfortable and weak at the knees. The Pump is full of secrets and lore, unraveling as each story spirals further into despair. The idea of being trapped is a common theme, whether it’s on a rooftop or at the hands of wildlife.
The first story, “The Bottom,” follows Ellie and her father as they bait, kill, and skin beavers. Ellie repeats words and vomits out incoherent ideas as her narrative comes apart at the seams. These inconsistencies make it challenging to identify family and community members. In one passage, two characters are drinking orange soda when one says, “I wonder if my mother’s God knew how much of a liar I was.”
Some stories are shorter than others, but all are imaginative and unforgettable. “Vellum” brings Ellie back and we witness the further decay of her mental and physical health, reflecting important real-world issues that slowly consume individuals, from toxic relationships with family, partners, and corrupt leaders, to poor living conditions, addiction, and confused religion, sexuality, and gender. There is no healing when everyone in a community is hurting.
While shifts can be glaring in tone and style, it becomes easier to digest and more intriguing as you continue. “Danny Boy” is about love and loss and explores the mythology of The Pump in a new way. It stands out as one of the collection’s more hopeful entries. Told through a second-person perspective that serves to draw in the reader, it begins with the death of a friend. An exchange of letters between “you” and your dead friend, written through a surrogate you’ve never met, is both touching and unsettling.
“Home” is the final story in The Pump, following these often sickening stories of mortality and morality, and there could be no better finale. “Home” abandons previously-established characters, ignores the beavers, disregards the entire setting, and preserves only the name, The Pump. The curtain falls and the somewhat obscure metaphors drop.
This even feels like a change from fiction to non-fiction. The narrator, Jo, details a relationship with her girlfriend Marty, which upsets Jo’s homophobic mother. Jo and Marty want to run away, leaving behind their hometown in search of better days.
Though the stories are reminiscent of the horror genre, they are all deeply rooted in real world problems. It’s fiction and fantasy in setting, and occasionally in situation, but not in its message. As Brooman’s stories wind towards an ending, the message becomes clearer: the toxin in the water that kills the residents of the small, isolated town is trauma and abuse. Those who stay fall prey to it, becoming the monsters they feared as children.
The Pump is a well-delivered metaphor for cycles that only individuals can break themselves, if they have the stomach for it. Each emotionally-charged, interconnected story builds characters, rewards careful readers, and promotes re-reads.
Brooman currently lives in Toronto and has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Western University, where they were the Student-Writer-in-Residence, an Editorial Assistant for the Canadian Poetry Project, and Editor-in-Chief of the Slam Poetry publication SNAPS. They were also the Artist-in-Residence at the TAP Centre for Creativity and a Fiction Editor of Patchwork at the University of Iowa. Their story “The Bottom” was shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2020 Open Season Awards, and they have recent work in American Chordata, Thorn Literary Magazine, and other literary journals.