» Book Review
Questions of Emotional Truth
The Grass Labyrinth: Stories, by Charlotte Holmes
BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City), 2016
160 pages, paper, $15.95
The Grass Labyrinth won the 2017 Independent Publisher Award (IPPY) gold medal for short stories and the 2017 gold medal for Indie Book of the Year in short stories from Foreword Reviews. You can hear Holmes read from the book here.
In “Coast,” the first story in this collection of nine interconnected narratives, Henry Tillman, a painter and children’s book illustrator, is staying with his wife, Lisa, somewhere on the coastline of South Carolina in a beachfront cottage that he inherited from a great aunt. We are privy to his thoughts as he ponders reading Rilke with a lover, painter Agnes Landowska; describes a spat with Lisa over making Thanksgiving dinner; and reflects on various liaisons, familial and otherwise. It’s significant that Henry narrates the first story: he is the cog around which many of the ensuing stories revolve.
The Grass Labyrinth is about relationships, how they form and unfold, twist and intertwine, sometimes fall apart and sometimes hold fast. Holmes takes the lives of a few related individuals and shows how various forces—art, love and death—affect how they treat each other. This book is also about the creative act—in the various forms of writing poems, painting portraits, photographing boulders—and its ramifications.
At one point in the opening story, Henry wishes Agnes were with him. “Maybe what I want is just to watch her take in the details of a place I know so well,” he thinks, “see them filter into her consciousness, and come back changed, infused with her own quirky vision.” As we read further into The Grass Labyrinth, this statement becomes relevant to the author’s vision. In some ways Holmes is describing her own narrative MO, a succession of appraisals of places and people—a fine filtering leading to revelations not so much quirky as compelling.
Lisa is the speaker in the second story, “Songs Without Words.” She fills out the details of a reference Henry made in the first story to the abortion she had early in their relationship, the memory spurred by a recent miscarriage that makes her feel cursed. Friends try to comfort her; she, in turn, pictures “a heaven populated entirely by children, floating in static like that of the TV screen when the stations go off the air.” She envisions her own lost children in that limbo, “each one as long as a cocktail shrimp.”
Holmes mixes engaging descriptions of settings with equally persuasive dialogue. Her stories are clearly planned, but they develop without one’s noticing the armature, even when the author pulls a flashback to fill in some bit of information. In this way, each piece in the book works on its own, yet plot and thematic strands woven through the stories serve as a kind of inter-generational DNA.
The story “Taken,” the longest in the collection, exhibits convincing authenticity in its rendering of the dynamics and intrigue at a retreat called the Colony somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania. A 34-year-old poet, Rika Pratt (Agnes’s daughter), becomes involved with a painter, twenty-seven-year-old Ben Tillman (Henry’s son). Both have significant others—she, Ethan, a bookstore owner; he, Mattie, a photographer—which doesn’t stop them from testing the liaison waters.
The story deftly switches back and forth between the two of them as they size up each other. It’s a sometimes-tense tango that culminates in Ben’s studio where he unveils his work from the residency. Rika finds his realism disappointing and says so: “She’s long regarded photorealism as—to use her mother’s term—just dick-wagging. See what I can do?” Ben bridles at her critique. “Emotional truth?” he asks her, “What’s that?” It’s a question the author asks in one form or another throughout the book.
In “Erratics,” Holmes switches stylistic gears, building the story from a series of thirty-three short pieces, each with a numbered title: “Erratic #112,” “Erratic #35,” “Erratic #7,” etc. The format is inspired by a series of photographs that Mattie has taken of glacial erratics. These rocks left in random places by the glaciers serve as emblems for her and Ben’s fragmented lives, marked by miscommunication and stressful recollections. “You didn’t even know what an erratic was until I told you,” Ben tells Mattie at one point, adding, “And for a long time, you kept calling them eccentrics.” It’s one of a number of moments of appealing meanness.
The title story and its coda, “Provenance,” give the collection a strong one-two closing—not a climax or a tying-up of loose ends exactly, but rather an opening to new possibilities. Invited by Kerry, his father’s widow, to sort through his papers, Ben visits his childhood home, on Thanksgiving, to find his young stepmother planning to transform the front yard. Ben thinks The Shining, but the spiral design Kerry has in mind is a vehicle for meditation. It turns out to be an environment an outsider artist might have assembled, wonderfully peculiar.
Finding fault in what is an altogether rewarding read comes down to nitpicks. A few similes seem a stretch, such as likening a child’s round and clear syllabic calls of “co, co, co” to “crystal beads flung across a tabletop.” An occasional cliché wrinkles the prose: at one point, Agnes says, “Destiny is simply an excuse invented to explain bad choices and missed opportunities,” a fitting thought for the occasion, but one that rings a bit bromidic.
Returning to the opening epigraph from poet Charles Wright after finishing the book, one is struck by the aptness of his lines: “We live in two landscapes, as Augustine might have said, / One that’s eternal and divine, / and one that’s just the back yard.” Charlotte Holmes is a master of both kinds of landscapes and the men and women who inhabit them. She is a painter of place and passion. The Grass Labyrinth is an exceptional collection.