Forget the Sleepless Shores – Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press)

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Sonya Taaffe is a classical scholar and a poet as well as a writer of literary fiction, and her signature style is both poetic and cosmopolitan. The stories in this collection make it clear that she prefers to “show, not tell.” Her depictions of her native New England include so much imagery of rain and ocean waves that a reader can almost taste the drops. While the physical settings of her stories are precisely-described, her characters don’t adhere to clear gender or sexual norms.

Here is the opening scene of “Chez Vous Soon,” the story of a doomed relationship:

The rain was full of leaves, like hands on her hair as she hurried home. Grey as a whale’s back, the last cold light before evening: the clouds as heavy as handsful of slate, pebble-dash and mortar; the pavement under Vetiver’s feet where blown leaves stuck in scraps to her sneakers, brown as old paper, tissue-torn.

The somewhat pretentiously-named Vetiver (who prefers her middle name to her first name, Julia) is going to visit her artist lover in the run-down apartment where he is obsessively trying to capture the look, sound, smell and feel of Autumn on canvas.  The word-pictures in the story illustrate his efforts to express what seems inexpressible, at least to him. Asked if he has taken his medication for mental illness, he responds that he doesn’t want to blunt the power of his mind when he is working.  The distance between the lovers seems unbridgeable, and the tragic outcome seems inevitable.

Most of the stories in this collection were previously-published in various anthologies and journals of speculative fiction, and therefore they are inconsistent in length, theme, and impact. The “sleepless shores” of the title are not clearly identified, although the spirit world is plausibly described in several stories. In the most unnerving, the dead literally walk among the living.

“The Creeping Influences” is set in Ireland, and features an ancient body uncovered by peat-cutters:

She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck.

The preserved body raises questions about her status in the distant past: was she sacrificed to the gods? Was she executed for a sexual transgression? The narrator is haunted by the peat-bog woman, and the eroticism of the narrator’s dreams is mixed with the violence of Irish history.

Space does not allow me to do justice to all 22 stories in this collection, but they are all worth reading. They defy simple classifications, and they are likely to leave a reader sleepless.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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