As faithful readers of my blog know, I wrote a book, got it published, and now spend a tiny bit of time shilling it.
A while ago I asked if any of those who have read it would mind writing a brief review of it for Amazon.com
One of those reviews was recently posted and I want to share it with you all… partly because it is a wonderful review about my book, but mostly because it is a extremely beautiful piece of writing.
My freshman art teacher told us not to draw lines, but to define the boundary between a thing and everything else. An object, he would say, is defined by the space around it that is not itself. Michelangelo described this concept with regard to his sculpture when he said “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition…” I was reminded of all this while reading Kaylia Metcalfe’s elegant and intimate short story collection, Links. Her stories had me thinking of what was there and what was deliberately set aside.
The stories turn like dazzling little soap bubbles in your fingers. After reading the first few, I started picturing delicate, intricate things, like bubbles, spider webs, old clockworks, and model airplanes. I thought of balsa wood clipper ships; I imagined her gently tapping and gluing mast and hull pieces together, carefully brushing on wet paint, weaving slender threads of rigging all around, testing the wires with gentle tugs and pulls, and finally setting it all on some gently bobbing water, maybe in a sink where a baby was just washed. At any moment, it could all sink or come apart; there could be a violent snapping of lines, there could be melodrama, histrionics, revelations, confessions, soliloquies, tirades, protestations, and proclamations. But that never happens. Those things all are real and they are all potentially imminent, but they’re what’s been hewn away or erased into empty space.
What remains is the rigging. The rigging links parts of the ship, keeps it together, and in fact defines the object as what it is. In each of Metcalfe’s stories, the central action involves a specific connection or `link’ between two people. These take place in frozen moments of time, like the temporarily calm eye of a hurricane. The links are the hearts of the stories in this collection, and the threads that run through them all.
Metcalfe quietly infuses her stories with clever timekeepers to mark and measure these moments. There’s a rusty pendulum, a slowly setting sun, a magical childhood twilight in between dinner and bath time. In one story that is otherwise pregnant with time passing, there is a room with dark curtains and no clocks. In these ways, Metcalfe assembles very special places in time for her links to find and twine about each other.
The stories feel extremely personal, intimate, and strangely familiar. At one point I (figuratively) looked behind my shoulder to see if Metcalfe was watching me, if she’d been watching me my whole life. I thought of that Roberta Flack song about a woman who is sure a singer is “Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song.” I was directly connecting with several of her characters and their situations. But it wasn’t simply due to some universalism of plot. These are not superficial retellings of Shakespeare or hero myths, although there are Titans clashing here and there. The stories are completely original and honest, precisely because they are so perfectly intimate and personal. But what’s interesting to me is how the common humanity is in what Metcalfe doesn’t explicitly say.
For example, in the longest and perhaps most ambitious story of the collection, Night Scape, there is a scene of such fragile tenderness and honesty that I felt a bit like a voyeur reading it. I’d never had that reaction to a story before, and I think it was because I could deeply relate to the heart of the moment (if not the specific details). It’s about an older married couple, still living in a house together but emotionally separated by age and failure and mundane reality. They share a rare moment of sexual intimacy, but it’s not the awkward, unfulfilling sex that links them; it’s the care they clearly still have for each other, the depth of their ability to trust and be vulnerable to each other, and the shared honesty around exactly who and what and where they are. Metcalfe’s insight into this moment and the skill and respect with which she reveals it to us are truly breathtaking.
After that I was actually a bit gun shy. Some of these stories can feel almost too dangerous. It can be like a scene in a horror movie where the innocent co-ed is about to go down into the boiler room to find out what’s making that odd noise. Metcalfe makes us watch the girl go down the stairs into the darkness, until we start shouting at the screen, “No! Don’t go there!”
But nothing entirely predictable happens in this collection. As in real life, there are no superficially satisfying resolutions or pointless happy endings. Sometimes, questions remain entirely unanswered. But also as in real life, there are no purely indulgent tragedies or incomprehensible plot twists. Oh, there are horrors, real and imagined. This boat is bobbing in some deep waters. I found myself staring at the page a few times, hoping that what I’d just read hadn’t really happened. But I know that actual horror is real. These stories are about as real as I can imagine stories being.
Metcalfe is also very good at crafting simple but effective sensory metaphors. She uses them with subtlety, like punctuation, so you may not even notice them right away. But as with good punctuation, nothing is wasted. When a mother and daughter stop by the side of the road, the daughter “…puts her hands on the steering wheel and curls her fingers in, then out, then in again.” When a young girl hands a beggar some spare change, “Part of his mind was wondering how odd it was that the coins were so warm against his palms.” She takes you momentarily away from the characters and plot so you can really feel something in a primal way. All story description attempts to do this, of course, but Metcalfe’s style is refreshingly direct.
Finally, this collection has that all-important element of good writing – verisimilitude. In the first story, Angel, a man shares a very dramatic and tragic moment with a stranger. It’s not the type of thing that most people have personally experienced, but in my opinion Metcalfe gets it brilliantly right. She is clearly writing what she knows. She’s doing it with skill and honesty, and without a hint of self-indulgence.
Ms. Metcalfe is a gifted and disciplined writer. Links is a marvelous testament to the unique power and beauty of the short story, and each story is a uniquely intimate exploration into humanity and human connection.
Thank you John. I was deeply touched by what you wrote…and I would love to read anything else you might write!
And if you are interested in buying a copy for yourself…
here is the link