BEFORE by Carmen Boullosa

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Before
By Carmen Boullosa
(Translated by Peter Bush)
Deep Vellum Press — June 2016
ISBN 9781941920282 — 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


Before is a perfect example of what makes Deep Vellum Press so invaluable in providing access to English translations of modern world writers. Boullosa’s published works spans from poetry through plays to novels, generally focusing on themes of gender and feminism. This novella provides a finely distilled entry into her themes for those who can’t fluently read Spanish and/or are hesitant to commit to any one of her seventeen novels published in Mexico (with some translated and at least once in print in the US).
Billed as “part bildungsroman, part ghost story, part revenge novel,” Before is told by a woman who may — or may not — be dead, in an uncanny narration that disjointedly recollects her past, the relationships that kept her in fear while young through that uncertain journey to adulthood. Like Modiano, Boullosa’s seems particularly focused here on the theme of memory. Whereas the French novelist has often explored this on the collective cultural/national level, Boullosa’s prose dredges through the personal and familial.
   “(I feel surrounded on all sides by loose ends of memories I’ve invoked when telling you my story. They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting ‘me first,’ and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique. I lecture them: ‘Memories, be patient, let me take you one at a time to consider you more favorably, please understand that if you come at the right moment you’ll shine better in my eyes, you’ll burst and liberate all the treasures hiding on the backs of your roan mares…’ If only I could write what I relate and devote eternity to reading it…)” — pp. 43 – 44.
Before captures and celebrates the contradictions inherent in these relationships and their associated memories:
“My grandmother looked at me disappointedly because I wasn’t the boy she would have liked. My dad…he didn’t look at me that day or any subsequent day, till I lost count. Then, when I stopped noticing he wasn’t looking at me, he did look and did play with me. He was fantastic to play games with.” — p. 11.
Alongside her family, fear lurks as embodiment of the factor that has most influenced the narrator’s memories and development.
“Afterwards I fell asleep and the [terrifying sounds] that woke up…the ones that woke me up! I was in holy fear of them, a nameless tasteless fear, a fear outside of me, that went beyond me…” — p. 27.
Boullosa paints this fear as as a force that parallels the narrator’s sense of isolation from the universe around her, strengthening the forces of patriarchy that stifle her budding individualism and any self-confidence she might discover.
The melancholy tone of Before and its soupçon of the supernatural make it into an eerie auto-bereavement of how a woman began and how the power of others molded her into something else, an entity distinct from what she could have been.
“Because I’m not what I was like as a child. I am who I was, that’s true, I am or think I have been the same from the day I was born to today, but my eyes are not the same.” — p. 65.
The disjointed, fragmented nature of Before, characteristics inherent in memory, should not dissuade readers. Within the novella length this type of construction is palatable and apt. Those who appreciate intelligent, atmospheric meditations on these themes of womanhood, family, memory, and mortality shouldn’t hesitate to allow Before to speak to them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00J84KLNK
273 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
(Original Publ: 1986)
Source: NetGalley

Pat Murphy’s name and writing were only familiar to me from the nonfiction articles that she coauthors for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Always interesting and well written, I was excited for the opportunity to read some of her fiction, this one a Nebula award winner.

Structured as alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth, a respected archeologist leading an expedition studying Mayan ruins, and her estranged daughter Diane, the book explores dichotomies that exist within us all and how these influence both the individual and relationships. A certain conflicting contrast is present throughout “The Falling Woman” at al levels. There is the realism/fantastic divide in its genre: it could arguably be either a fantasy novel, or firmly grounded in reality. Elizabeth is haunted by her past, and by visions of ghosts, such as the Mayans who continue to wander the ruins and talk to her, sharing their own secrets, and their own world views. Unsure if she is crazy, or merely ‘gifted’, Elizabeth, and the reader are forced to consider whether it matters, or whether the two possible extremes can exist comfortably side by side.

The novel also delves into cultural divides, of being Western or Mayan, from the United States or a Mexican, Christian or ‘pagan’. How are these each different, and how might they be surprisingly similar? However most prevalent, the book explores the dichotomies of male/female and mother/daughter. Elizabeth’s eccentricities and uncertain sanity are tied to emotional pains she has dealt with in her life to varying success. She has cut herself and has attempted suicide. These and other darkness led her to separation from her husband, and abandonment of her daughter. Unable to conform to the accepted societal maternal position, and female submissive position, Elizabeth goes out on her own, to deal with her emotional darkness, gain a college education, and try to find a passion for something in life. Diane as a result, views her mother as a mystery, but with love and devotion despite her abandonment, Diane seeks Elizabeth out, and together begin to evoke certain maternal aspects in each of them, and deeper connections.

The emotional frailty of Elizabeth, relatively frowned upon by traditional American society is contrasted nicely with the maternal cultures of the Mayan, with their infant sacrifices. Similarly it is contrasted with the traditional, and largely accepted, male answer to addressing emotional pain: drunkenness. Filled with these sorts of relationship complexities and profound insight in feminist and other cultural matters, “The Falling Woman” is simply a brilliant novel. The writing is simple and straight-forward, but in that way it is delicate and poignant, precise, without ever being over-bearing or too frenetic. Although marketed as SciFi/Fantasy, this is far closer to a literary novel, and fans wanting hard genre adventure may be disappointed with what is here. But those open to exploring dichotomies of culture and characters will find this richly rewarding. Open Road Media, who is publishing this in ebook format, is putting out other works by Murphy as well, and I am definitely putting those on my list to pick up.

Five Stars out of Five