Reviewed by Karen Ocaña
A dozen stories make up Sharon Lax’s powerful debut fiction collection, Shattered Fossils; thirteen if you count “Dawn Ascends,” an introductory two-liner, reminiscent of a mind-bending moment from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. More such moments engage our imagination throughout this book of lavishly realistic yet dreamy settings, studded with a cast of diverse and remarkable characters.
What drives the action tends to be a dispute or disagreement, a difference of opinions. In the final story, “Memory Becomes You,” materialism engages with mathematics as a physician’s spirit returns from the beyond to revisit a delicate conversation with her husband. In “The Ark of Gopherwood,” History spars passionately and memorably with Poetry, though it all begins tenderly at a professor’s deathbed. In the story, “The Earl of Beaconsfield,” (possibly my favourite), the tension is internal to the protagonist but enacted as dramatic dialogue, with Benjamin Disraeli revealing to his portrait artist, as the latter creates his likeness, views of himself vis a vis how his detractors see him. Sometimes a story unfolds in a formal or academic setting, more often on the road, in a farm, in a park, café or in back of a truck.
Many characters, including the porcine person at the heart of the delightful short story “Freedom” – act as if letting one’s thoughts and feelings be known is a kind of sacred trust. It’s a thinking-feeling bunch. A story may adopt a stream of consciousness style, though musings are deftly framed by narrative and spliced with vivid description, with dialogue creating supple arcs in the action. In “Love Along the 63rd – A Symphony,” sisters Nadine and Virginie, and Virginie’s daughter Joy, hike up Mount Denali in Denali National Park, Alaska, in movements whose spirit follows the four movements of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. (Nadine is a professional violinist.) The narrator frames the mountain’s ascent in First Nations lore, reminding us that the Tall One—over 6,100 metres to sky—has many different names in the language of Koyukon of the Athabasca Nation, Tanana, Deg Xinag and so on. “Beneath its summit, clouds convene in competing languages of mist.” Later in the story, seven-year-old Joy learns about Alaska’s history, Native facts and stories not taught in state schools.
These works of fiction appeal to all of our senses, especially to our sense of curiosity and wonder. At times, the writing overreaches, becomes impenetrable, as in the line “Lasting is to stay as moment is to light.” Some stories have more appeal than others. Some move more briskly, “The Left Eye,” which I enjoyed for its craft, mood, voice, and grandparent-grandchild relationships. Others move slowly, unfolding in a fractured way. As a character struggles, the reader may struggle too, a sluggishness enveloping them in a mental fog, searching through memories, feelings. This sort of heaviness sets in at the beginning of “Affectionate Monsters,” a story about twins and their life on a farm, family quarrels, love of animals. It begins to feel as if a subterfuge or subplot has hijacked an already complex story, which then drowns in too much feeling … much as the title portends.
But, time can do that—shatter and scatter—as consciousness becomes a prism. The narratives in Shattered Fossils pay rapt attention to what mind and matter can do, their chain reactions across time and space. Each carefully crafted story investigates reality, without ignoring sources of political friction or questions of gender politics, with language that deploys generous helpings of musical effects. This collection does not shy away from sex, whether same sex, cis het or some other configuration. All twelve stories feel deeply researched and uncommonly relevant.
Shattered Fossils is published by Guernica Editions.