by Myfanwy Collins
In matters of personal damage, we all react in different ways. Some choose to run away and ignore their shortcomings, some simply make do, others wallow in them, and others make the decision to live within these new parameters and find ways to excel. We are all capable of bouncing around these different reactions like we do in the throes of grief, for personal crisis is a kind of grief, never quite knowing where we might land. Myfanwy Collins' Echolocation explores this process within the women of one family, and the result is thought-provoking, at times disturbing, and completely wonderful.
Right away, we are tossed into the chaos of these women's lives as Geneva loses an arm, cutting down trees to sell as firewood. Her husband is unemployed again and they need the money.
But she felt off that morning, a blue shakiness she couldn't otherwise explain. It didn't have anything to do with the fact that Clint hadn't come home the night before or that their electric bill was overdue. It was something else, something blurry around the edges. When she looked back on this day later, all she would think was, "I should have known."
Before long, Geneva is running her Auntie Marie's store in upstate New York, nestled near the US-Canadian border, grieving the incoming cancer-death of the woman who stood in for her mother. Marie never had children of her own, but took in Geneva as a foster child, then later adopted her. Marie practically raised her own sister, Renee, who later gave birth to Cheri. After Cheri was no longer a baby, Renee took off with her latest boyfriend, believing her child would better off. Cheri and Geneva grew up as sisters, albeit sisters with complications.
It had been almost four years since Cheri was last home. Four years since Geneva married Clint, and since Cheri said, "He's a pig." Those were the words she'd used and after that there was not much else to say, especially since Geneva would hear none of it. Geneva's disregard proved fortuitous, though, for it gave Cheri the nudge she needed, and in some ways had always hoped for. Once she was done standing up on the altar next to Geneva and Clint as they said their vows, she'd left town, eighteen years old then and on her own. She didn't even flinch when Auntie Marie first called and told her of her illness. Not until Geneva herself called and said, "Come home now. It's time," did she flinch.
But what tugged at her was that, maybe a visit to the safety and simplicity of home would erase some of the crap that was her life and bring her back to an understanding of the person she was and what she wanted.
Though primarily focused on Geneva and Cheri, Collins hops through all the characters' heads, including Cheri's mother, Renee. Renee has settled in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where she waitresses at a popular biker bar and lives with her supposedly-recovering addict boyfriend, Rick. She likes feeling needed and physically appreciated — the type who says things like, "He hardly ever beats me." She's sweet, though not particularly bright. One afternoon at the bar, Rick turns up with a surprise — one I won't spoil here — that causes Renee to leave Florida and head back to New England. She doesn't yet know that her Auntie Marie is dead.
I will admit that the first fifty or so pages of the book were tough for me to read, not because of their quality, but because of the depressing subject matter. Lost limbs, neglectful mothers, discussions on whether or not they should shoot the feral cats living out back — all of it is heavy, especially when I read it at a time of my own dubious mental clarity. However, that should not dissuade anyone, as those are my problems and not the book's. I wanted to keep reading; I cared about these women despite the urge to look away from the reminder that people like this do exist in the world. Everything in this slim book serves a purpose, even the scene regarding the cats, and that purpose sneaks up at the end in such a way that I have to admire Collins' skills. The details are at once circular, woven, and carved like puzzle-pieces, everything straddling the line between inevitability and choice.
The writing has a very serene quality to it, even when terrible things are happening. The chilly, Northern scenery is nearly its own character, with the pine scent in the air to the absence of power on stormy nights. I can see it — though it is perhaps colored with my Montana-version of Canadian border wilderness. Inside the store and Marie's home have other personal-yet-personally-familiar details, with memories of past holidays and the proper way to cut a sandwich. These women may feel incredibly screwed up most of the time, but they have their own way of forging on.
Echolocation is a perfect little book about reality hitting hard. It's about necessary roughness and begrudging tenderness, and it swallows one up while reading. I certainly look forward to experiencing more of Myfanwy Collins' work.
Full disclosure: This was an uncorrected proof sent to me by Engine Books prior to the publication of the book, so the direct quotes may have changed slightly in the final edition. I thank them for gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.