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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Review by Linda Rogers

Short Takes on the Apocalypse
Patricia Young
Biblioasis, 2016

Clea Young
Freehand Books, 2016

When literary mothers have literary daughters, it is natural to draw comparisons, the tics, syntax and characteristic gestures that identify family members are usually apparent, even when the language is carefully chosen to distinguish root from branch. These familiar things make studies of families like the Brontes, Sitwells, Trollopes and Amises even more interesting.

Clea Young, whose first book Teardown has a deconstructionist post-millennial edge with urban angst and snappy contemporary dialogue, is an apple that falls close to the family tree. In fact, comparison with her father, whose suburban writing has a Big Chill factor and her mother, a human tuning fork, reveals the parental legacy of ruin and beauty, the bruises in almost perfect apples.

Having grown up on a street lined with cherry trees whose spring storms of pink snow might have distracted Clea from pavement cracks, her stories tremble with the uncertainty of lives lived in proximity to the fault that runs through the Chinese graveyard at Mile Zero. The end of western civilisation could happen right at the end of her street. This possibility is not lost on the daughter of a mother who wrote about demented women haunting the basements ( female subconscious?) in middle class neighbourhoods.

One day they were simply there
In ermine-trimmed jackets, tipping pitchers of milk.

The poems and the short stories reveal a genetic predisposition to three-dimensional observation, the invisible aura around migraine.

The poems in Patricia’s new book, Short Takes on the Apocalypse, are expected tremour notations amplified by growing evidence of cataclysmic times, climate change, despotic regimes and mass migration. The poems are also short hand for short stories, arcs of beautiful failure in our brave attempts to normalize life in the abnormal twenty-first century. Even in romantic relationships, the matrix of mother and daughter storytelling, there are inherent flaws. Every word is a storm warning.

In “Cabin Time,” she meditates on Henry James assertion that “summer and afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language. Perhaps they should be for writers of la belle époque and Anglo-Victorians like the Youngs, who summer in a beautiful cottage in the woods near a lake, a place where she would ask, “is love overrated like happiness and sobriety? The endangered planet tilts.” Gathering storms reverberate, even at the apex of privilege,
Isaiah, the Prophet wrote: When the father eats sour grapes, the son’s teeth are set on edge. So it is also with mothers and daughters. Not every apple on the tree is ripe for picking. Some have worms or are made of vulnerable china.

“Grief slides from a mother’s shoulder to the daughter’s,” the mother writes, “Once as a child I heard my mother complain that the summers were getting shorter. Oh no, by the time I grow up there’ll be nothing left.”

More than nothing, the Youngs share a surplus of uncanny ability to focus the light. Opportunity and their inherited and nourished curiosity is both a gift and a curse. In telling their stories, mother and daughter connect generations of women and provide the impetus for continuity. Their blessing is an enhanced awareness that brings with it opportunities to transcend banality.

Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil, a lesson for our time. With their accelerated vision, mother and daughter penetrate dreams that often pass for reality, lies for truth. Their deeper narrative punctures fiction riding on hot air.

Like her mother, Clea deconstructs the apparently perfect moment. Death hovers like shadows stalking sunshine. There is a cliff at mile Zero, the end of the street where she was raised, and her stories are speed bumps on the suburban road to the sea.

In “Teardown,” a pregnant wife tries to escape her own body, her fate, but the writer who is both a mother and a daughter knows that our stories are already written. It is the variations that are beautiful and the Youngs excel at exquisite description, while dispensing doses of irony on a silver spoon.

“It’ll all be over soon,” Clea’s character says, which is both true and untrue.” And Patricia has written, “Save the tears sister, you’re gonna need them down the road.”

Their female characters wear bangles, like the elder Young and her sisters and cats with bells, and that is no accident. Alluringly, perhaps misleadingly feminine, the bracelets sound a warning. Here we come with our thirst for life, our hunger for mortality. This is the music of time and we have perfect timing. The women lead the dance because they inhabit the dance language. Bangles.

In “Firestorm, a memoir of betrayal, Clea sets up a motif for female revenge. The parable of the deer reveals how damaged women survive.

To their left a deer has materialized. She wades into the water to drink. On her flanks, where there should be fur. Rory sees flesh and the rawness of it She must have come through the fire. She drinks and drinks, keeping a dark marbled eye on them. She wades deeper, until water sloshes beneath her belly. Then she starts to swim.

Indeed. These are stories of survival and survival depends on integrity, the marbled eyes of apparently dispassionate observers.

A writer gets to manipulate the games she invigilates. This is the mother daughter advantage. Despite tectonic faults, the diminishing value of loyalty, and the inevitability of death, they are the ones who decide how the story or poem turns out. Young the younger could be speaking for both of them when she writes, in “What are you good at. What do you like to do?”

I knew I should be looking inward, but I was too curious about what everyone else was emptying from their open hands. I wanted to gather up all their grievances and humiliations and regrets and examine them. I wanted to measure them against my own.

That is the measure, the smell of beeswax candles covering the stink of decay, “where orchids languish on rotten tree trunks.” The mother writes, “I understand that I will grow old and so will the child. I understand the word love and also beauty but those are better left unsaid. In the end, there are facts and there are truths.”

They can’t leave that distinction to the alternative truth people. Not when so much is at stake. Writers have a sacred responsibility. Whether this is nourish or nature matters less than the urgency of speaking, finding the beatitudes that are their gifts to the human family and framing them responsibly.

Linda Rogers’ recent novel is Bozuk, a Turkish memoir, and her story. “You Need Me at the River” appears in Clifi, Canadian Tales of Climate Change from Exile Editions.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22