By Eliza Robertson. Hamish Hamilton, 304 pp, softcover
Nobody would accuse literary fiction—the unrivalled territory of bookworms and librarians and nearsighted people in general—of being extroverted. But in her debut collection, Wallflowers, Vancouver-born, Victoria-raised emerging literary star Eliza Robertson creates such a peculiar and pretty world of misfits and loners that one could imagine her work being filed on the shelves of some magical, imaginary bookstore as “introvert fiction”.
A keen observer of scenes, Robertson sets the tone for her collection with “Who Will Water the Wallflowers?”, a story so intensely visual that it’s almost hallucinogenic: “Fat toads fall from the sky and fill the hanging geranium pots.…water courses over the thin terra-cotta bowls like open mouths,” she writes of the rain. The story of a cat sitter in the middle of a storm, it’s full of beautiful scenery and hidden menace; her writing, at times, verges on poetry. It’s at its strangest and most evocative in “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?”, which relies on reverse chronology to tell the tale of a girl living with her preacher uncle on Vancouver Island after the death of her family; she finds solace in the supernatural First Nations mythology told to her by a local boy.
A trail of melancholy winds through much of Wallflowers, but Robertson is at her best when she assumes the voice of children and, in one case, an elderly woman with dementia; the sadness of tarnished innocence is something she does very well. A personal favourite is “We Are as Mayflies”, a coming-of-age story of sorts where a tween protagonist begins to understand, through her misbehaviour, the kind of power she wields in the world and the damage it can do.
The collection finishes with “We Walked on Water”, about a boy whose sister dies while competing in Penticton’s Ironman, for which Robertson accepted the Commonwealth Short Story Prize from John le Carré at the Hay Festival in Wales last year. For B.C. readers, the scene she paints in such lush detail is the familiar made exotic: “Cascade Mountains pushing out green like grass through a garlic press”.
Pretty it may be, but Robertson’s assured writing in Wallflowers reveals startling depth and complexity—trademark qualities of all the best introverts.
Eliza Robertson will make two appearances—on October 25 and 26—at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. See the Vancouver Writers Fest website for more.