Short stories so often function as apprentice work, especially in the early days of a writer’s career, and Eliza Robertson’s first collection, Wallflowers, announces her arrival on the scene as an already accomplished journeyman of the craft. Well decorated, having been a finalist for the Journey Prize, the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize, and winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Robertson’s accolades are well earned; the best stories in her first collection – Who Will Water the Wallflowers, L’Etranger, Road Notes, Worried Woman’s Guide and We Walked on Water – are beautifully executed, wrought with evident care and the kind of artistry that is born much more easily than it can be taught.
Who Will Water the Wallflowers starts Robertson’s first book with the power and drama of a shot fired. Taking place in the 24-hour period before a dam breaks and a suburban subdivision goes underwater, the story draws readers right out onto the street with the characters. A teenage girl is housesitting for a neighbour, and it’s her first chance to play at independence. Around the corner, her mother has a hard time adjusting her routine around the absence of her daughter, and the man next door to the neighbour’s house is looking at his own lonely future, anticipating the day his wife finally leaves him after one too many blotto nights. From the first line, Wallflowers is knitted together from the dreadful threads of premonition: “The day before the flood, the girl slices lemons into a wide-mouthed mason jar.” Later she muses on how “jars will replace tupperware” and Robertson keeps the narrative one step ahead of itself even as she relentlessly shows the reader that the flood is coming, and when it arrives, everyone may well find we’ve all taken one step too many.
The careful control of details that enable an agonizing sense of anticipation carry through in the the collection’s other high points: L’Etranger, told from the perspective of a woman who doesn’t care for her seemingly callous Hungarian roommate in Marseille, is elegantly paced, and powered by a surefootedness that allows the reader to crawl into the lonely dark with Robertson’s narrator. When she, both disgusted by and powerless to change her situation, pushes a squirming slug into her terrible roommate’s Nutella, it feels like a vindication. Yet when the narrator realizes the abject cruelty of contaminating some woman’s breakfast treat, Robertson manages to play the scene in such a way that the reader isn’t complicit in that lowness – as if, by some neat trick, she allows her character to feel remorse without indicting the reader for the sadistic act, (which could so easily be mistaken for something like cosmic justice). While Robertson’s narrator makes a moral enough choice, the story ends without the reader feeling chastised, and Robertson’s talent emerges as a rare one; here’s a story that’s more interested in the feeling of realization than in ham-handedly trying to reveal some didactic thing.
The freewheeling breadth of Wallflowers brings Steven Heighton to mind, that talented, multifaceted writer who is equally at home writing first-person accounts of fictional car jackings or in the shadows of Hiroshima’s devastating after effects. Like Heighton, Robertson moves freely back and forth through time and space to gather material to fuel her stories. In this first collection, she includes: a captain’s log from the bottom of a hole, dug by a small child in Sudbury, Ont., in 1919; Thoughts, Hints and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One’s Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies, which, like a Victorian era version of the Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye, Earl, collects the musings of a justifiably mariticidal woman who might well be a neighbour to Madame Bovary; a cartographer’s notes as he travels the globe, all the better be able to make “a legend” of his lover’s body. But where Heighton is a master, Robertson is just getting started; Wallflowers is, truth be told, a bit of a mixed bag.
As a collection, Wallflowers feels insubstantial – some of these stories, like the aforementioned Handbook, for instance, smell still too much of exercises, as if they were entirely driven by MFA workshop deadlines. Others, like Nightwalk, where a prostitute befriends a man who lives on the beach, are pure and simple deadweight, bulking up the book without adding any sense of heft. Nonetheless, even the most underwhelming stories collected here couldn’t quite be called bad, and the good ones frequently slide toward greatness. If writing these particular stories was a kind of apprenticeship, then it’s clear Robertson is poised to become a master.
Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother magazine.