Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The five stories in Elizabeth Genovise’s A Different Harbor mark her publishing debut and are impressive for their clear-eyed compassion. The stories are beautifully intimate and intensely direct, poignant journeys into the burl-wood heart of what it means to be not only humanly complicit but also safe from strife while at home in a different harbor.
It’s the theme in the first captivating story, “The Seiche,” a term used to describe oscillations in a body of water, a swaying back and forth. It’s a fairly natural physical phenomenon, but Genovise exploits the notion into a metaphor for the life of her first-person narrator, Maggie, who spends time caring for seventy-six year old Frank Stanley and his wife Adele, both of whom are dying of cancer and who elect peacefully to end their lives together by sharing memories.
The story could become mawkishly sentimental but Genovise carefully poses the “conscience” of her younger narrator against two possibilities, an existential either/or. A college friend has started an academy in Tennessee and is pressing Maggie to move and take a teaching position. Maggie sways in that direction. When she and Adele, however, sink into a comfortable silence while making bread, Maggie oscillates in another direction.
Like most beautiful works of art, issues must be resolved; the swaying back and forth must arrive at an equilibrium. For Maggie, the resolution is to stay for a time with Frank and Adele, which, she concludes, is to stay and accumulate memories of good conscience, good faith, and good stories to be collected into a book.
We can assume or believe, therefore, that in this first story to this collection we’ve been introduced not only to the personae who “made” this collection but to the personae who “made” the choice in life to become a storyteller, a writer, a keeper of memories, one who willingly explores the mystery of being, which is to call to mind Rilke’s poems of a similar title and order, books of hours, pictures, elegies.
The motif is to call to mind “complicity,” how it is that we are “accomplices” in one another’s lives, “complicit,” acting together but less in a criminal way, as in foul play, but more sacral, as in the ritual of a young woman and an older woman baking bread.
“Burl Wood” invites the reader into the lives of ten-year old Cal and his father whose tiredness is a mark of depression. He’s become a widower, some four years now, and has become lost, drinking and unemployed, and with that descent his loss of dignity.
How, then, to transcend, to find some principle to regain that essential dignity? It’s an ambiguity which Genovise solves without tautology or the supernatural. That mysterious and essentially discrete reality which is called grace appears in the “complicity” between father and son and burl wood, a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner.
The metaphor takes some thought until the reader realizes that the burl is the result of the tree undergoing some form of stress, much like Cal’s father and young Cal himself. Once removed, however, the burl wood can be remarkable for its beauty when it’s made into something else, a bowl, a table top, the good things that can be shaped lovingly by a patient hand. What seems the product of corruption on the tree, or on the human soul, can be directed upward, even toward exaltation, toward something artful, and again sacral.
This is a story that requires some meditation but is also suffused with a compassion, which is also a form of piety.
“On the French Coast” is the third story in the collection and occupies the middle of the book. It’s a good story in as much as it immerses the reader once more in the notion of “complicity,” but in this case the characters are accomplices in their own self-absorption. If the story has a weakness, it’s that it needs a larger canvas. There are moments that require a slower fictional detailing in which the human lives, or the respect for human life, deserve more solicitous treatment.
The story takes place on the cemetery grounds above Normandy Beach; both are implicitly unspeaking, somber characters in the story because of what has historically taken place there. But there’s an irony: the youthful characters are at least two generations removed from what happened on that beach in 1944. Their historical consciousness is relatively shallow but will in time deepen, and then deepen again when they come to know that history is what sometimes hurts. It’s a modest criticism only because the story is rich in premonitions and spiritual counterpoise. It owns extraordinary if unrealized possibilities.
Of the two remaining stories, “Transmissions” is good but is likely personalized. It’s likely the glib central character has arrived at a deterministic point in life analogized as a muscle cramp which must be relieved. The correlative causing that cramp is what seems personalized and the means by which that cramp is relieved occurs less as a testing moral exercise as in the other stories. It’s a modest critique, however, because if the first-person narrator is to be relieved of her spiritual asphyxia one would prefer to read that relief in context of the “complicity” of the other stories, every story “leaking” something into the story that follows as opposed to a “stand-alone” story still in a sequence.
As it is, there’s a bit of a disjunction between this story and the previous stories: it’s masterful and finely written but without that wonderful sense of complicity found in the previous stories and the concluding story.
The concluding story, and the title story to the collection, “A Different Harbor,” is as close as a short story can get to perfection. In brief, it’s a story of a young man who has returned from battle fields and war scenes and has seen and participated in actions of moral remonstrance. He’s “complicit,” of course, and suffers moral sickness and a deep sense of his own mortality.
What he has done and what he has observed has led to an existence constricting all possible modes of future action, a future life.
As in “Burl Wood,” Genovise masterfully constructs the solution around a wonderfully meditative controlling metaphor. Joel and Joanie, brother and sister, make a short car trip to a place familiar to them from time ago. It’s a good place, a place of refuge, a harbor, a vantage point from which one can look out and see heat lightning illuminating the vastness of Lake Michigan, a scene, an image both sublime and beautiful. Two peninsulas stretch out like arms kindly holding this different harbor in sacral safety, and the loving “complicity” between brother and sister, the resolution to moral sickness and mortality.
It’s a fine ending to this first collection of stories by Elizabeth Genovise. Good stories are those that are open to uplifting reflection and a deeper understanding of ourselves. There’s nothing of the experimental dilettante here; there is rather a patience, a vigilance, and a firmness of purpose to say some things about that “complicit” communion that exists between writer and reader.