This debut collection is filled with sensory detail. From brisket and chicken soup to gefilte fish and borscht.
From paint-by-number clowns to lacy pillow-slips. From red-striped deck chairs to weathered shutters.
Whether it’s Debussy or lyrics from “Oklahoma”, the details matter. But Aspects of Nature is actually preoccupied with broad and expansive themes.
More than one of stories, however, indeed one of the cornerstone tales (“Finding Maryan”), does have music at its core, however.
“Finding Maryan” is based on her experience studying with musician Maryan Filar, in Philadelphia in the 1950s, when he had newly arrived in the Philadephia.
The story requires that she flesh out her understanding of him a great deal, building upon the scant facts known about his life.
“Well, it isn’t enough, is it, to march chronologically through a story, beginning to end? Every writer knows that; every reader feels that. An epiphany, a point toward which the narrative drives, a climax of a sort, is required: What happens on a “Thursday” afternoon at four p.m.? What Thursday afternoon would you like? The day the SS wrench Maryan Filar’s father, Adam, from Warsaw ghetto streets, never to be heard from again? Or the day his mother and sister vanish?”
Perhaps it is how a writer defines an epiphany which has the potential to nurture alliances with readers.
Much the same way that Bonnie Burnard spoke of wanting to tell, in her novel A Good House, the story of a family that mostly functioned. Even though the literary climate was weighing heavily on the side of dysfunction, and the tension and drama associated with fractured and flailing familial relationships.
Many readers loved A Good House and it also won that year’s Giller Prize. But some readers expressed deep disappointment that nothing happens in that novel.
Rhoda Rabinowitz Green’s stories are quiet and filled with ordinary and everyday occurrences in some respects as well, but often there is darkness at their edges (even, sometimes, their cores).
Sometimes this results in an over-earnest tone, as sweeping observations are made, but this is not uncommon in debut collections. Consider: “Only music kept him from becoming slave to the devil of bitterness, hate, and despair.” An attentive and experienced reader senses this is true, does not require the elucidation.
These periodic pronouncements are not as immediatley apparent when presented in plainer language. Consider: “Pretending there was something going on here that was worth a life, worth talking about.”
And when offered as casual asides, or displayed through elements of a scene rather than directly, they add flavour and spirit to the collection. In “Dear Doctor”, for instance: “‘Doctor will have to speak to you,’ she crisps (They all say Doctor, generic noun, like Father as in Holy).”
The darkness does weigh down the reader at times (readers should have opted for a bright and sunny daytime scene on the cover if they hoped otherwise). “Seconds of silence go by like minutes, weighted with a lifetime of pleasures made bittersweet with present sorrows.”
But a spirit of resilience is also present. “That confident assertive woman I always knew was there, latently potentially powerful like the genie in the bottle.”
Settings are as varied as Florida and California, Toronto and Philadelphia. But much of the drama is interior, the setting merely a detail (sometimes even unnamed).
The language is mostly straightforward, with the occasional lofty image (like seaweed snaking in strands, Medusa’s tresses). Sometimes metaphors and descriptions are predictable (slashing rain, whooshing wind, hair colour of chestnuts, or crashing ocean breakers) but sometimes powerful (splinters of time, or a rumour spreading like a contagion of lice).
Aspects of Nature is a solid debut collection, preoccupied with “rewinding the possibilities” and decisions about where and how to live, and whether and what to sacrifice. Sometimes it’s simply about a Thursday afternoon, other times someone vanishes.
Contents: “At Wind at Her Back”, “You Make Your Decision”, “Finding Maryan”, “Aspects of Nature”, “Dear Doctor”, “Shayndeleh”, “The Day of the Gorgon”, “What’s Going on Here, Anyway?”, “Out to Lunch with the Girls”, “Age Appropriate”, “Shayndeleh’s Real Estate”