Monday, April 26, 2010

The Only Thing I Have, by Rhonda Waterfall

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Unnerving, moving and sometimes exceedingly bleak, many of the stories included in The Only Thing I Have are likely to stay in the reader's mind long after that final page in this slim volume has been turned. The debut book from Canadian writer Rhonda Waterfall, it is written in a brutally direct style that heightens the impact of these narratives of loneliness and loss. Its topics aren't particularly novel, but no matter: there is plenty to like here, with the author's unadorned prose and gift for storytelling offsetting any lack of originality.

Waterfall's writings can roughly be described as mostly sympathetic examinations of the human psyche disguised as simple tales about failing relationships. Several begin with this common motif: the central characters of "When You're Gone," "Around the Park" and the title story all feature intensely restless and dissatisfied people who envision idyllic - and most likely unattainable - lives that break from their status quo domesticity. These are portraits of characters desperate to escape but paralyzed by bouts of inaction and their own conflicted emotions: these characters know they want something else, but aren't sure of what that something is. Their indecision cripples them; worse, when these characters take decisive action it doesn't turn out well.

There's also a heavy amount of fatalism in the world the author portrays in The Only Thing I Have. Coupled with the writer's tendency for invoking the sinister and gothic - especially in the Post-It Note double-murder tale of "The Last Note," the taxi cab driver killing in "Shooting the Driver" and the chilling, remorseless next-door neighbor murder of the title character in "Fatty" - hope and optimism are in short supply throughout this collection. For the most part Waterfall's writing cannot be described as excessively nihilistic - though one character slowly freezes to death with only a grainy homemade sex tape of himself and the woman he either can't stand or desperately needs for comfort - as she clearly cares about her characters, as deeply flawed and sometimes self-absorbed as they are. Their sufferings in the face of an indifferent world are immediately recognizable; Waterfall is never over-indulgent and her dramas unfold subtly and not on a grandiose scale. Her characters are acutely aware that daily struggles sometimes exact the heaviest toll on a person's mind: "I think sometimes I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. I suppose it's not the real thing, the full-blown deal. It's just small breakdowns. Little breaks along the way," Waterfall writes at one point.

If there is a shortcoming to these stories, it's that periodically they sound like minor variations on the same theme, especially in terms of how Waterfall's plotlines unfold and how her subjects react to adversity. Though it also at times feels overly repetitive - too many entries involve clich├ęs like seedy hotels, people downing liquor like water and anonymous, mostly unsatisfying sex - The Only Thing I Have is a promising first effort from an obviously gifted writer. With its precise and economical writing style and characters whose struggles will likely feel prescient to readers, this book convincingly speaks of shared human experiences, as we embrace life's comforts and equally try to make sense of its cruelties.

1 comment:

steel cylinders said...

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