November Read of the Month: “When Women Danced With Trees—35 Unexpected Stories,” by Marina Brown

Marina Brown

Marina Brown

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Versatile, talented Marina Brown once more has written a stunning gem of a book with her collection of short stories in When Women Danced with Trees—35 Unexpected Stories (Gilberte Press 2021). Here, the extraordinary and the unexpected collide with the ordinary and the everyday. With the occasional appearance of magical realism in some stories and Brown’s imaginative inspection of the everyday lives of her characters in others, these stories fairly fly off the pages— and into the readers’ consciousness. If the Emily Dickinson test for poetry—”If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” —applies to short stories, Brown has fully succeeded.

If there is a consistent theme uniting the myriad of settings and styles in these tales, it might well be that when Brown’s main characters are confronted with a cloistering or unfulfilling flatness in their lives, they opt for change—sometimes with great drama, sometimes in quiet shifts. Yet Brown’s people find ways—usually unique—to free themselves from their unsatisfying existences.

The collection is divided into six parts and their titles, along with Brown’s charming line drawings, reveal both the theme and the style for each section. For example, in “Just Deserts—Served with a Twist,” a few feckless sorts get their comeuppance, while just as often, an underappreciated, worthy type gets a “bonus.” In “What They Don’t Tell You about the AARP,” an aging couple is exposed to other aging couples doing outrageous things—or at least what the stodgy husband perceives as outrageous. Faced with the increasing tedium of her life with this man—who leaves her quotes in a bible marked with toilet paper—the wife rebels, but in a thoroughly delicious way.

While often characters feel trapped emotionally, sometimes they are trapped physically as well, as in “The Day Doug Fell Overboard.” Brown perfectly captures both the physical and the emotional in one paragraph in the story about a couple aboard their sailboat:

“Doug!” she yelled. “Doug! Help! Goddamn him,” she pounded and cursed, so far from the genteel, polite, and sensitive woman she believed to be her core self. Barbara had always believed in a secret person inside, the one tucked deep down, the marrow of self, the one that was never really touched by current circumstances. But right now, pinned half-naked, dripping with sweat, in a pitch-black cabin, the roar of the generator blasting against her head, and Doug—Doug attending, like he always did, to his machines instead of her, well, damn, it was hard to go back to that quiet and serene place.

In the book’s segment titled “The Days After Tomorrow,” the six stories often show women grabbing at their last chance at joy. In “The Joy of Peeing in Your Pants,” for example, an aging, woman stuck in a stultifying upper middle-class existence breaks out when she starts dancing with the kitchen crew to hip-hop music in an expensive restaurant:

Now, the thrusting, stabbing, repetitive beats of the music, filled with words she couldn’t understand, awakened some inner version of herself that had lain dormant her whole life. Inez felt her head beginning to move forward and back, then her whole body arched and flexed, forcing her to her feet.

They all get kicked out of the restaurant, but that doesn’t negate the joy they find in the exuberant dancing. Even Inez’s little accident leaves her laughing.

Stories in “Hopeful, Sweet, and Scared Spitless,” contain among other tales, not one, but two stories of people caught in COVID-19’s isolation. In “Pandemic: Month Eleven,” the narrator describes the ennui of being housebound, but with a surprising and very sweet touch at the end. Capturing the languor of being self-quarantined, albeit in comfort, Brown’s narrator opens the story by observing, “Today I did what I did yesterday, but I did it slower. I washed my face in divisions, upper, middle, and lower strata, using up minutes that were overflow from an hour’s nap I had tacked onto the too short night.”

The collection in “When Life is Not Kind” contains, as the caption for these five stories suggests, some tales of heartbreaking sadness. Perhaps the most haunting of the stories in this segment—or perhaps in the whole collection—details two young people, Quy and Minh, in Vietnam during the war. Titled “White Swan,” it tells the doomed story of the two youths in achingly poignant, even horrifying language.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam had been bled of its young. Fighting the French, toiling for the Vietminh, and now sent south as Viet Cong guerillas, generations of tough, wiry men and delicate girls were, like Quy, purveyors of an endless war. … The bomb burst open beside them. A radiance that enveloped everything, destroyed everything, illuminated the two tiny figures. Minh turned to look at Quy. Her eyes, round as sequins, glittered in the napalm’s dance, and the whiteness of her face reflected the rupturing trees and burning clouds. Even their breath seemed on fire.

The “Magically Real” collection, as the title suggests, contains stories with magical realism in them, including the title story, “When Women Danced with Trees,” which captures the kind of palpable longing that pervades the whole collection. Yet here too there is offered a strange, mythical kind of resolution. In the story, a series of women faced with seemingly unsolvable problems are linked by a vision some ten-year-old boys claim to have seen in a forest. One of the women, Miranda, having apparently lost everything of meaning in her life, travels to the woods described by the boys:

She looked out at the trees, admiring their undulating branches that like fresh-air anemones moved in a waterless world. She wondered at their tranquility, registering blue and green, silver leaf-bellies upturned in delight at the sun.

But then she sees there are more than mere trees in this forest. Miranda sees something “that both frightened and thrilled her. The tree had reciprocated. The tree had understood and loved back.” What happens next has that blend of dark and light fantasy of a Grimm’s Fairy tale in its surrealism, yet is also filled with beauty:

Miranda touched the tree. She smelled its fragrance of humus and perhaps the tiny new mushrooms that were beginning somewhere high. Closing her eyes, she tasted the bark’s tannin with her tongue— a new lover’s lips first explored, waited for too long, and breathed in the forest’s exhalations.

The last segment in the collection, “Getting Away from it All,” gathers together some of Brown’s travel essays, including the longer, very satisfying “The Accused Bones,” in which a couple of tourists visiting the island of Bequia steal some whale bones seen glistening in a body of water, only to find to their dismay, the whales want the bones returned to their resting place. The tourists are not particularly calloused, but they are so captivated by the whale bones and the location that they develop a selective insensitivity. They want those whale bones as souvenirs:

We all ate fish freshly caught, pulled mangos from trees, boiled up wonderful roots we’d never eat at home, and filled our boats with flowers we hacked fresh from jungle glades. In this setting, the plan of taking home a symbol of the grandeur of the ocean—a vertebra—didn’t seem so far-fetched. It was as if we’d all come under a sort of spell in which we no longer countenanced the arguments Green Peace might have shouted in our ears. Though we had declined a bracelet of tortoise shell that very day, and had never even carried home a sand dollar, all of us somehow were transfixed with the whale bones. And we decided to go fetch ourselves one early the next day.

Brown’s descriptive powers are obvious in every story, but perhaps shine most in the “Getting Away from It All” travel stories. Brown, who is also a poet and an artist, paints her word-pictures with an acute sense of what makes a scene vibrate. The title alone in “Golden Bangles, Silver Moons, Swirling Scarlet Saris” succeeds in transporting the reader into a different sphere.  Brown describes the spectacle of India in this piece:

Nothing can prepare a traveler, even a seasoned one, for India and its swirl of color, scents, throngs, and ancient archetypes that collide like brilliant molecules along the streets of Jaipur and Varanasi. Nor for women who, dazzling in golden bangles, march their oxen and swing their scythes in a desert’s patch of green. Nor for crumbling palaces sprawling pink atop the hills, where monkeys play and peacocks wander, and the occasional tiger takes a nap.

In the opening address to her readers, Brown lays out what she hopes readers take away from her stories:

In the end, it is the ability of the written word to paint a picture that has hooked us, words that are as real and vibrant as reality—no matter the genre in which we write. We are ‘writers’ of pictures. Moving pictures that carry us along, both the writer and the reader, and if we’re lucky, drop us off someplace different from where we started. Hopefully we’ll find ourselves smarter, sadder, more amused, or more joyful than when we hitched that ride with the author.

And so it is that having hitched a ride with Marina Brown’s stories, readers will find themselves smarter, sadder, more amused, and like “Inez,” definitely more joyful.

Marina Brown has been a professional ballet dancer with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a psychiatric nurse at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, and a cellist with the Tampa Bay Symphony. She shows her paintings in galleries and museums across North Florida, and writes for the Tallahassee Democrat and several magazines. Each of her three novels, (Land Without Mirrors, Lisbeth, The Orphan of Pitigliano) have won Gold Medals for Historical Fiction. Her volume of poetry, (The Leaf Does Not Believe It Will Fall) received an FAPA Silver Medal, and she was nominated for 2021 Florida Poet Laureate. Her most recent novel, The Orphan of Pitigliano, was named the 2020 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.

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