Kelli Deeth Reviews Christy Ann Conlin's Watermark
Christy Ann Conlin, the author of Heave (2002) and The Memento (2016), has now produced Watermark, a stunning, highly novelistic collection of stories. Conlin’s earlier works offer meditations on how, in David Malouf’s words, “the elements of place and our inner lives cross and illuminate one another.” Conlin’s characters, while often suffocated by the traditions and customs of place, are no less defined by them, even when they do flee. What’s more, memory acts as a kind of internal setting, constantly reminding characters of what can never be undone. In Watermark, Conlin, in keeping with her two previous novels, depicts richly complex characters intersecting with memory and place.
In several of the stories in Watermark, characters seek relief from pain through escape in its various guises—relocation, addiction, precarious attachments, or even return to the families they initially fled. “Eyeball in Your Throat” explores Lucy’s resistance toward her daughter Deirdre’s wish to return home after many geographical and emotional escapes. Lucy recalls once finding Deirdre passed out after a night of drinking, “face down in the rose garden, all sprawled out in her outrageous beauty…her drool…soaking a dark pool by her face.” Lucy is reminded of her father, who was “dead from the booze at sixty” and can easily imagine Deirdre “in a coffin in the funeral home, just like her grandfather.” Yet Lucy also considers her own failings in listening to Dierdre or acknowledging her suffering when Dierdre was a child. The story is about how we can, in protecting our selves from the worst losses, create impossible distances between ourselves and those we need. In “The Diplomat,” Viola, having left her fiancé on Campobella Island to live abroad, meets Henry, a Chinese diplomat. Their interactions reveal that while Viola associates home with emotional suffocation, she also misses it. The story is realized through its ironies—Henry cannot go home and may never see his family again; his exile is forced upon him. Conlin shows us how characters may turn away from belonging and yet never stop requiring it.
Conlin also depicts women coming to terms with motherhood, death, caregiving, and past traumas—sometimes all at once and always in subtle or not so subtle opposition to the limiting expectations of those around them. Daisy, the protagonist of “Occlusion,” reflects on her relationships with friends, her sister, parents and son while undergoing a core biopsy. Her childless sister, who exists in a “prism of rage,” shames Daisy for her perceived mistakes yet expects Daisy to look after their mother, who has developed an ocular occlusion, as well as her father, who has dementia, all while she struggles to raise her son, whose father has died. At one point, Daisy reflects, “I suddenly realize how terrified I am of dying, how I feel I can’t even die, there are so many people depending on me.” In “Back Fat,” Conlin explores the psyche of a young woman who has, since childhood, done most of her living outside of her own skin—that is, pleasing others and rarely herself. Conlin perfectly charts the protagonist’s reunion with self, as she jettisons those who prefer that she live for them. In many of Conlin’s stories, characters face the choice of whether to live or die—not literally, but psychically.
Conlin’s Watermark engages on many levels. First, Conlin’s deeply sensitive attention to images of land and water provides the collection with a novelistic unity. In many stories, water, whether it is the Atlantic, Pacific, a pond, or issuing from a garden hose, propels transformation, transfiguration, and reconnection to lost selves. Likewise, dense forests and the secret paths that run through them deepen the reader’s sense of characters’ vulnerability to isolation and madness. Also linking the stories is the occasional sense that all is not what it seems, that characters, as survival necessitates, enter and exit the literal terrain, or, in other words, cross thresholds into more magical realms. In “Deadtime,” an adolescent girl accused of murder and awaiting her fate in a detention centre becomes “the consort of scarlet fire beings and sirens of the blue ice.” In “Flying Squirrel Sermon,” an old woman, along with her secrets, disappears “in the mist and waves” and in “Desire Lines,” a young girl attempts and perhaps achieves metamorphosis.
In Conlin’s earlier novels, and now here in her stories, the author charts the paths of characters often scarred by past traumas and searching for ways to heal. Conlin’s language, concise and gorgeously vibrant, seduces readers into her detailed, empathetically imagined worlds. The subtle, poetic connections between the stories and characters deepen our sense of the links between humans and the places they inhabit. From its first lines, Watermark, a collection like no other, will seize your heart and refuse to let go.
Kelli Deeth’s The Girl Without Anyone (HarperCollins) was chosen as one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books. Kelli Deeth’s latest collection of stories, The Other Side of Youth (Arsenal Press) was short-listed for a ReLit Award. Kelli Deeth holds an MFA from The University of British Columbia and lives and writes in Toronto.