Reviewed by Ruth Latta
What Shines from It
by Sara Rauch
Paperback: 190 pages, ISBN-13:978-1946580115, Feb 2020
The title of Sara Rauch’s short story collection, What Shines from It, is from a poem by Anne Carson. “A wound gives off its own light”, wrote Carson, and adds, “You could dress this wound by what shines from it.” Rauch’s collection is about the wounds, mostly psychological, that people in relationships inflict on each other.
Each story is illustrated and although the pictures are by many different artists, they harmonize with each other, adding to the appeal of the book design. Eight of the stories were previously published in literary magazines, including Sinister Wisdom, So to Speak, and Wilde Magazine. In her “Author Thanks” at the end of the collection, Sara Rauch thanks her sons, stepson and husband, who “came onto the scene after these stories were written.” Rauch founded the literary magazine “Cactus Heart” (2012-2016), has published widely in anthologies, and teaches writing courses. What Shines from It won the Electric Book Award.
The theme of wounds in this collection relates principally to issues and disappointments regarding reproduction. Seven of the eleven stories in the collection have to do with infertility, wanted and unwanted pregnancies, life with small children and the hard decisions parents must make. Readers who have these concerns will find What Shines from It particularly meaningful.
“Secondhand”, the first story in the collection, seems at first to be about a man’s reluctance to commit, but develops into a “reproduction” story in which the woman gets hurt. A young couple who have spent a summer travelling, have just found their own apartment in Santa Barbara, where Samantha had dreams of “a life of bikinis and…endless sun”. After several months of sleeping in a sleeping bag and crashing on a friend’s mildewed futon on a porch, she looks forward to a bed. Jacob, a marijuana dealer, has come up with the security deposit and the first and last month’s rent, but is slow in finding a job and reluctant to spend much money on furnishings that they can’t easily take with them when their six month lease is up. This is a story about a man’s reluctance to settle down, ending in a “too little, too late” situation, with Samantha in pain.
In “Abandon”, Calla suffers physical and psychological wounds. When the story opens she is hospital after a car crash led to surgery and the loss of a pregnancy. Her fiancé, Gabriel, hasn’t visited her. Her former room-mate, Audrey, who is at loose ends with regard to relationships, employment and housing, comes to look after her and stays on and on. Audrey packs up Gabriel’s clothes, but Calla, reluctant to admit that he has abandoned her, won’t get rid of them just yet. Back at work, Calla runs into her former nurse, Dylan, and discovers that, in his company, her abdominal scar pulses and vibrates. Audrey, who has found a job and a network of friends, urges Calla to come with her to a party. There she talks to Dylan, confessing that her body is “ruined”. He says that’s not so. Leaving the party because the strobe lights remind her of the car accident, Calla has a sad but clarifying encounter that leads her to do some abandoning of her own.
Though all of the stories in the collection are well-written, by the time I reached the fifth story, “Kintsukuroi”, I was weary of the reproduction theme, so “Kintsukuroi” was a welcome change. Indirectly it’s a story about how children keep people in unsatisfactory relationships, but it is presented from the perspective of the “other woman.” It is also rich in imagery and metaphor. Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The relationship that Christine, a sculptor, is having with Michael, a married professor and a father, is like kintsukuroi, Christine, who is married to Dot, describes her encounters with Michael as “a wild blurring of bodies into a taut gold thread of ache… Call us selfish and dishonourable but nothing has ever felt this pure. At a craft fair, Michael’s wife Anne turns up and buys a kintsukuroi vase that Christine has made. Christine explains that these vases are beautiful but “not functional,” words that also apply to her relationship with Michael. Anne notes the wrist warmers Christine is wearing after a burn accident, and says, “Great cover-up” which may also refer to Christine and Michael’s affair. Later, when Michael says, “We can’t be responsible for that kind of wreckage,” Christine feels that he has cut a deep line through her centre. Her wound shines like the gold in a kintsukuroi sculpture.
“Seal” fits in with the reproduction theme. A thirtyish couple in Brooklyn, Krissy and Stella, have agreed that Krissy will quit drinking and get pregnant and that when this happens they will move out of the city. On a visit to Sausalito to visit Stella’s mother, Agnes, to celebrate the winter solstice, Krissy thinks a lot about her own mother, who died of cirrhosis of the liver, and her father, whom she has only just met. Walking along the bay, she sees a harbour seal, which comes close, as if it wants to tell her something. Upset by negative thoughts about her parents, she goes into a bar and almost has a drink. The story ends with a heart-to-heart talk, and “the deal is sealed.”
Another baby story, “Free”, involves two teenage girls hitching from Vermont to a music festival, “The Great Went”, in Maine. They get a ride with a couple who have a six month old baby, as yet unnamed. In return for the ride, Jim suggests that the girls could help take care of the baby , and Audrey accepts without consulting Calla. The baby’s care falls to Calla, who calls the child “Esther” and becomes attached to her. Events take an unexpected turn, and the trip changes from a daring adventure into a maturation experience for Calla.
“Frequency” shows how miscarriages can damage a marriage. The couple in this story have bats in their attic, which bother the architect husband but inspire the artist wife. Bats’ ability to fly by echolocation, and a fetus’s “flying by feel” in the womb are a clever comparison in this story.
Vermin also appear in “Addition”, in which two women with a young son are dealing with a mouse-infestation of their rural home. As with the bats in “Frequency” and the seal in “Seal”, the mice stir the women’s humane feelings. It’s as if Mother Nature is convincing the women to have another child. Rose, who can’t safely have more children, wants Alex to bear their second child.. Alex, a carpenter/ woodworker, is worried about hanta virus and will have to give up her work, involving power tools, if she gets pregnant. She will also have to enlarge their cabin if they have another child
Four stories in the collection are about wounds but only indirectly about childbearing, if at all. In “Beholden”, two university students who live in the same building meet shortly after 9-11, but are so traumatized by the terrible event so close to them that their relationship is doomed. In the end, the girl reflects upon the ghosts that haunt her, adding that her body is a “ripe field for planting” which will eventually “burst into bloom.”
In “Answer” a man goes into a lesbian bar, and strikes up a conversation with a woman. Seth, thirty-something and married, visiting New York, meets Liz, who works for a non-profit. As they explore the city they get to know each other, sharing the wounds at their cores. After giving up his ambitions as a painter to marry and support his family, he has discovered that his wife is having an affair with a neighbour. Liz was devastated when her parents disowned her because of her sexual orientation. Their encounter is not an erotic experience but is a positive one.
“Kitten” concerns a disabled war veteran and his wife who are struggling financially and emotionally. The husband is stirred from apathy in an attempt to rescue a stray kitten; the wife doesn’t think they are in any shape to take on a pet.
My favourite story is “Slice”, told in the first person by a young New Yorker, Emmeline, who does seamstress/couturier work while supporting herself as a receptionist in a hair salon. When the story opens she has been hired by a rising actress to design a dress for her to wear to an awards ceremony. “I liked the bright heat that accompanied a project – it meant I was plunged into the promise of turning cloth into costume,” she says. She is trying to balance her work with her relationship with Sebastian, who wants her to move in with him. He was once engaged to another woman, but this is not the main reason Emmeline is hesitating about the move. Rather, it’s because her shabby, underfurnished apartment “feels like home”. Sebastian is always in her space when she is trying to work on this important commission, which may lead to more of the work that she loves. While she is sewing thie intricate egg-plant coloured gown, he tries to enter into the spirit of the project by cooking eggplant in her tiny, hot apartment. When she goes on holiday with him, hating to postpone her project, she has a shocking realization. In the end, her talent is acknowledged in an unexpected way. Like “Kintsukuroi”, this story is rich in imagery and metaphor.
My favourite stories are “Second Hand”, “Slice”, “Kintsukuroi” and “Free”, but all of them show excellence in writing. What Shines from It explores contemporary issues and relationships in a subtle poetic way, and is well worth reading.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019) She has also published three collections of short fiction: A Wild Streak, Save the Last Dance for Me, and Winter Moon, which won the Northern Lit prize from Ontario Library Services North in 2011. For more information about her work, visit http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com and http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com