All the Voices Cry, by Alice Petersen (Biblioasis, 2012) 158 pp., $27.00.
Short story collections are notoriously difficult to review. There is no requirement on the author’s part to create links from one story to another, or to explore themes that, broadly speaking, bind the parts together to make a whole. Sometimes the only connecting link is the elusive authorial voice, elusive because the better the writer, the more likely it is that each story will be a universe ‘entire of itself’.
New Zealand-born Alice Petersen’s debut collection, All the Voices Cry, announces itself early on as something of a gift to the reviewer. The authorial voice, far from being elusive, is sharply, poetically present. This is not to suggest that the stories are in any way diminished, though some undoubtedly succeed better than others. What makes this collection so easy (in the best sense of the word) to read, is the author’s passionate relationship with the woods, lakes and rivers of her adopted Canada: to be precise, the hinterland of Montreal. In story after story what comes off the page is her sense of the overwhelming presence of the natural world, and the ways in which human beings interact with it, for better or worse.
From story to story, images jump off the page, transporting the reader to a land of portage trails, lakeside cabins, woods full of wild flowers and healing herbs, exotic birds, prowling bears, elusive fish, and humans whose marks on the landscape tend to last no longer than the season in which they were made. ‘Up in the woods life, no longer simple, develops myriad complications’, the English Professor, Colin Pritchard, observes in ‘The Tenured Heart’. Retreating from the weekend that might have changed his life, he pronounces himself a coward. Not for him the challenge of the wilderness, and the shape-shifting humans who inhabit it. The same is true, though in more subtle fashion, for Freya, protagonist of the title story. A widow of eight years, she enters the woods seeking renewal. But what she hears is not the promise of new love, but her husband’s voice: ‘We walk in the woods alone my dear, walk in the woods alone.’
Curiously, the five stories set in New Zealand – ‘Through the Gates’, ‘The Land Below’, Neptune’s Necklace’, ‘Scottish Annie’, and ‘Mrs Viebert’s Prognostication’ – are less satisfying than their Canadian counterparts. The landscapes of these stories, while vivid enough, carry less freight than the stories set in the Quebec wilderness. Though ‘Neptune’s Necklace’, set in a tiny Otago coastal township (I read it as Aramoana), does what Peterson achieves so tellingly in the Canadian stories, aligning the human predicament with the changeable and ultimately mysterious movements of the natural world.
Hattie, the protagonist of ‘Neptune’s Necklace’, has a secret (The five New Zealand stories are all predicated on secrets of some kind, as are several of those with Canadian settings.) In Hatties’s case the secret is the death by drowning of her young grand-daughter, and the sense, hinted at rather than stated, of her own culpability. It is only when this is revealed that Hattie’s life as an artist of the beach and the sea makes sense. But if that was all there was to the story it would be little more than a conventional threnody for the inevitable (and unjust) tragedies that befall so many human beings. What lifts it above the conventional is the presence, as catalyst, of two young lovers, entranced, as Hattie is, by what the sea tosses up, but, unlike Hattie, full of faith in the future and in love with life.
Such grace moments are typical of the whole collection. Stories that might otherwise have been mired in melancholy are subjected to subtle shifts, allowing the reader to view the characters and their situations, from a different, less gloomy angle. Bernadette, the mother in ‘Salsa Madre’ who has lost her son, finds him again, but only to observe, not to engage with. In ‘Champlain’s Astrolabe’ Brian, father of Kelvin, who ‘had always been a question mark kid’, thinks a ‘brush with mortality’ might shock his son out of his torpor. But it is not Kelvin who gets beaten to within an inch of his life but Brian himself, an experience which leaves him ‘strangely exhilarated’. Isabella, the actress in ‘Where the Corpse Weed Grows’, seeking a miracle cure for her dying mother, is directed instead to the corpse weed, ‘the living dead of nature’. ‘It looks dead but it is alive,’ the park ranger tells her, cautioning her against miracle cures. ‘Go to your mother, sit with her, and listen to her,’ he counsels. Melancholy – all too often the short story default position – clings to every one of these tales, but it is the other feelings that Petersen brings into play – stoicism, the acceptance of fate, the possibility of renewal, the persistence of meaning – that create their unique tone.
The perverse ways in which meaning is revealed is another of the unifying threads running through these stories. Nowhere is this more true than in the not entirely successful ‘Mrs Viebert’s Progostication’, a story which asks the reader to believe that a prophecy made sixty years in the past could prompt Norman, a successful Montreal eye doctor, to fly back to his native new Zealand in order to avoid the supposed consequences of that prophecy. The problem is we don’t know Norman well enough to understand why he goes to such elaborate lengths to disguise his real reasons for flying ‘home’, nor are we convinced that those reasons are a sufficient explanation for his actions. Because of that the sighting on the plane of the woman most closely connected with the prophecy seems more like the author straining for meaning than something that has arisen naturally from character and circumstance.
More successful, in the quest for meaning, is the author’s doubling of both people and locations. Characters who are centre stage in one story re-appear as virtual ghosts in another, creating a palimpsest of meaning, all the more believable for being so lightly etched. The same places recur too: Rook University the ‘natural home’ of Colin Pritchard, gets a passing mention in two other stories; a necking couple (echoing the couple in ‘Neptune’s Necklace’) at an airport are observed both by Norman on his journey back to New Zealand, and by Penelope Pritchard, mother of Colin, whose story is told in ‘Neither Up nor Down’. The couple play no role in either story, but such is Petersen’s skill they seem to offer a silent commentary on both Norman’s failed marriage, and Penelope’s failing one.
Petersen has described her stories as ‘just the right length for one brief voyage before sleep.’ Her ideal reader, she’s been reported as saying, is someone who has ten minutes to spare and picks up one of her stories to read while she is waiting. This chosen brevity, which in the case of ‘Mrs Viebert’s Prognostication’ means that too much is left out, works, in the more successful stories, in the same way as poetry, suggesting rather than stating, alluding to events that a less confident writer might have been tempted to spell out in detail.
There is an old-fashioned feel to some of the stories, consistent with their remote settings: a poet bashes out his poems on a portable typewriter; children play second world war games; a group of Palmerston North friends play canasta. But there is nothing old-fashioned about Petersen’s observations: the timelessness of desire; the inevitability of loss; the unsettling power of memory; the baffling recurrence of co-incidence, and the wash of meaning left in its wake.
‘A frog knows where it wants to go,’ ten-year old Carl tell his mother in ‘The Frog’, the implication being that human beings don’t, choosing wrong paths at every turn. It’s too soon to predict where Alice Petersen’s talent will take her, but it is to be hoped she will choose the brave path, and not confine herself to ‘brief voyages before sleep’.
ELSPETH SANDYS is Wellington-based writer, novelist and reviewer. Her short story ‘The Postman’ was shortlisted in the international Bridport Prize 2012 competition.