Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Were We Awake, L.M. Brown

Were We Awake, L.M. Brown, Fromite Press, Burlington, Vermont, 216 pages, $15.00.

Book Review
By Ed Meek

In her new collection of short stories, L.M. Brown quotes Emily Dickinson for her title “it is good we are dreaming—It would hurt us—were we awake—.” In her poem, Dickinson goes on to say “It is prudenter to dream.” Brown refers to Dickinson to imply that reality is so painful that we need to bury it. In her stories Brown digs beneath the surface to unearth the painful truth we bury and hide. In writing as in life, it isn’t always easy to delve into tales of infidelity, accidental deaths and murder, but Brown explores those subjects with authority.

Many of the stories are written as mysteries with information slowly revealed. Someone has been found bludgeoned to death behind a bar. It is well known he cheated on his wife so it could be any one of a number of people. In another story a woman driving home at night in the rain runs over a boy who suddenly appears in front of her car. Was the boy committing suicide? Whether he was or not, Brown goes into how we might deal with something like this. In another story, a young woman finds out that the relationship between her parents and her aunt is much more complex than she thought. Most of the stories either take place in or refer back to Sligo, Ireland, the setting of earlier books by Brown. In this collection of stories as in Treading the Uneven Road, we are introduced to characters who reappear in later stories where the same event is looked at through different eyes.

In “Anniversaries” Brown has characters reflect back on the murder of Nick Moody. When Brown does this, it has the unique effect of making the reader think about the earlier stories and it brings a coherence to a collection of short stories that we don’t often find. The mother of the woman who was working at the bar that Nick Moody was found behind thinks about her daughter Margaret who left Ireland years ago to go to Australia. “Nolllaig wanted to imagine Margaret as the little girl who stood shyly on the sideline of the green watching the other children play, but just as her daughter’s smells had disappeared from the room, it was impossible to hold onto that little girl.” Although the mother is losing touch with her daughter, the reader is reminded of her and of the way we lose all touch with relatives and old friends.

In the same story, Nollaig finds herself visiting a neighbor Eilish who loves cats and takes in strays. Nollaig thinks Eilish should name one that keeps showing up. But Eilish thinks “certain things can’t be owned, like a cat or grief. But Nollaig owned her grief. She held it to her, and on a certain day every year, she examined it.” A few pages later Nollaig “thought of all the things people kept inside, like the grief for a cat, and questions about a certain night.”  Nollaig wants to ask her daughter what happened that night and why she had to go all the way to Australia to get away from it, but Brown knows there are certain questions in life that we just never get the answers to.

There are also stories in Were We Awake not directly related to Sligo. In these there is a similar sense of unease or even dread, but I found myself wanting to get back to Sligo when reading them.

Like the characters in Were We Awake, as we get older, we continue to think about people we knew who died young, Mike, a kid I played basketball with in middle school who died of “a mysterious kidney ailment.” My best friend Richard from high school who died of early Alzheimer’s. There are no good answers to these questions but L.M. Brown gives us much to think about in the hidden stories she brings to light.

1 comment: