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Review: Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin

Five or six years ago, I used to receive a lot of books in the mail for review on my blog. It led to stacks of books and plenty of good intentions until I just got overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that it involved. My book reviewing also subsided when my children got to an age where they didn't go to bed early anymore, reducing time for my hobby--reading.

My most recent reviews have all been paid, but then about a month ago I received Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin, her latest collection of short stories, along with a wonderful little surprise. As most of my readers know, I've been a fan of this writer ever since I read Heave, her first novel in 2002. Both Heave and The Memento, Conlin's second novel, are set in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, a place I visited about five years ago with my family just to get a view of the "Mountain" or mountains that flank the Valley, with its dark forestland and picturesque fields that unfold onto the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

In Heave and The Memento, Conlin sheds light on the seedy, writhing underside of Valley life, or the secrets, trauma and abuse that lie just below the surface. This style, Conlin's trademark, has been described as North Atlantic gothic, and readers of Watermark can expect another dark, bumpy ride through the Annapolis Valley.

In this collection, Serrie, the runaway bride from Heave, returns in "Beyond All Things is the Sea." When children hear a woman's scream, they are told that it was merely a screeching peacock from Petal's End, the creepy estate in The Memento. There are enough satisfying connections between the stories in Watermark and Conlin's previous work, through narrative strands and character relationships, to give this collection an eerie sense of community, with a few dollops of magic realism to further draw the reader in. But you don't need to have read Conlin's previous work to fully enjoy this collection of short stories.

Watermark
Christy Ann Conlin
House of Anansi
ISBN 9781487003432

Most of the characters are likeable and all of them seem to be on a quest to assuage their past pains. Many of them escape the Valley to Vietnam, Germany and Canada's west coast and far north, but like the strong tide in the Bay of Fundy, there are forces pulling them back. In "Eyeball in Your Throat," adult daughter Dierdre wants to return home from Churchill, but her mother Lucy is not partial to the idea. Lucy resents the fact that her daughter is always off gallivanting and collecting boyfriends, while the daughters of her friends are all settled in respectable situations. The construct of pecking order and the lack of anonymity are at play here as they are in small towns around the world. While the reader may initially sympathize with Lucy, the mother's failure to love her free-spirited daughter and Lucy's somewhat claustrophobic view on life make her more of a tyrant than a mother who knows best. The last paragraph of this story is as beautiful as it is shocking.

Good visceral writing abounds in this collection. In the shortest story "Insomnis," a sleepless woman, although forewarned, wanders through a rough part of Halifax so that she will eventually find sleep. She hears a woman call her cat in the wee hours of the morning, and seeing someone she recognizes, the insomniac "waves as she steps from the curb and her toes poke warm fur."

The collection also contains some unsavoury characters like the greasy-haired recluse in "Full Bleed." Sweet Adam, a recent widower, agrees to take his late wife's grandmother Charlotte and Great Aunt Doris-the-Spinster on an annual fall drive. The sisters decide as "night looms down" to go visit the old homestead, which Adam begrudgingly agrees to. They encounter kin on the barely visible path, and his reaction is anything but welcoming.

My favourite in this entire collection is "Desire Lines," which are pathways worn down by people, often appearing next to perfectly good walkways. Narrator Eve studies desire lines in her PhD program in Civil Engineering. Out of the blue, her estranged father contacts her, even though she has not seen him in 30 years. Her father was a former hippie-cult leader of the Mists of Avalon, a name he created for their home on the North Mountain. Eve has a tough question for him about her sister Morgaine, who died as a result of his neglect at the commune. The themes of sinister pathways and mysterious crows are woven throughout this story to other worldly effect.

"The Flying Squirrel Sermon" is by far the richest story in this collection and could easily be expanded into a full length novel. Unsurprisingly, it comes at the end of the collection and it serves up a few tentacles leading to other earlier stories. As promised, Ondine returns to her grandmother's family home on Flying Squirrel Road on the Mountain to find out the truth about her family. Many women disappeared from this home, but it is unclear whether they were murdered or ran off to somewhere safer. I read this story three times to glean all the details, and the last page, deftly written, warrants many more. But that's the beauty of short stories, they can be read many times, and each time a new detail comes to light.

For fans of dark, preternatural literature, this is truly a must. There are plenty of innocuous circumstances that turn on a dime to the sordid and treacherous. I also challenge you to  figure out all the connections between the stories.

Along with this wonderful book, I was sent a surprise: an artisanal bar of soap, made from ingredients available from the Bay of Fundy area, or as the soap maker refers to it: "reminiscent of the Forest, Fundy and Field." The scent is decidedly fresh. Aptly called "Watermark," the soap can be found here at the Hen of the Wood's website.

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