Joanna Lilley’s short story collection, The Birthday Books, promises readers an unforgettable trip to the threshold of becoming that exists on no map, but in individual minds and social consciousness, along the boundary of the familiar and the unknown. Many of the stories in this collection mark time and place one beat prior to personal transformation, within circumstances that distort, clarify, or enhance the lenses used to peer into the self, others and into the past. Many of the characters in this collection are on the edge of something momentous. The stories are parsimonious and elegant, at once mystifying and perspicacious, the images formed from spaces teeming with anguish, euphoria, uncertainty, curiosity, and rare beauty. In her characters’ attraction to the North, in “Rearranging Rainbows,” “Silver Salmon,” “Magnetic North,” “Carbonated,” and “The Ladies of Marsh Lake,” Lilley composes a convincing testament to the North’s magnetic powers, what makes this harsh and challenging environment so alluring to the imaginations of those desiring a break from modern existence or individual circumstance. Readers will be enthralled with Lilley’s character’s wanderlust, with how their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and needs grow and change within themselves and out of their settings. The world Lilley presents shimmers with the promise of becoming, while the experiences in which her characters find themselves suggests a collective wisdom and understanding rooted in the human history of migration that blurs the boundary between nature and civilization, between experiential insight and present longing.
While the stories mentioned above explore the attractive powers of the North, with one character, for instance, recalling that for her the word, “Alaska,” piqued her curiosity because it resembled a palindrome (“Silver Salmon”), other stories celebrate the idiosyncratic composition of perception out of experience, circumstance, and budding worldliness. The sensibilities of several characters in this collection are empathic to the uncanny forms of being accessible through self-understanding (“Machair”), one that, when not possessed, marks a failure to recognize that what is visible in others is also present in oneself (“Rearranging Rainbows”). There is a duality in these stories, that the difference between a character’s desire to subsist in place, or to move beyond oneself into a vibrant and, at times, dangerous world, may be the sense that one possesses a form of communion with the strange and beautiful forms one sees at a particular time and place (“Magnetic North”), or by compulsions within one’s present situation (“The Triskelion Necklace”). Characters in this collection are drawn of themselves from their world, making this a collection worth re-reading, to recompose selves and worlds in the senses and in memory. This is because that which the characters feel and see is so immediately accessible in language, an accessibility of character through focalized perception seldom seen in fiction, more common in good poetry. Motivation, in this collection, is of a greater depth than reason and rationality, each character uniquely cast in worldview and circumstance, such that the laws of gravity and relativity apply as well in individual perception as they do in any model of the physical universe. In “Travelling Light”, the traveller perhaps has no reason for travelling besides having recently graduated from high school, and yet, the aimlessness of her travels, the recklessness with which she ventures out, will doubtlessly recall in the reader the same sense of a limitless horizon, one which, while vast, does not provide any indication of where to go next. It is as though there is no map for charting, no name yet for, that which is in this nameless protagonist’s possession. Mairi, the protagonist in “Death on the Wing”, notices her dog missing and, in searching for him, has a close encounter with an intruder. The event that occurs during her encounter will certainly challenge that there is a right and a wrong in the circumstance requiring a split-second, life-or-death decision.
Each story in this collection is sparely and carefully crafted, beautifully nuanced, yet the intelligence at work is of a higher order, one doubtlessly gained from extensive travel, insight into social circumstance and human nature, and empathy for the human condition. It is a collection resisting summary, the work of a poet equally at home in the short story form, a journey readers will be grateful to have taken.
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