Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review of A Garden Amid Fires from 29.2

Gladys Swan, A Garden Amid Fires, Kansas City, Missouri: BkMk Press, 2007. $15.95 paper (ISBN 978-1-886157-58-3), 158 pages.

Reviewed by Jackson Brown

Not all titles are created equal. Perusing shelves, I generally shy away from titles that seemingly seek to evoke a visceral response, especially by invoking nature or the body. The words “water,” “fire,” “bones,” olfactory expressions such as “scent” or “smell,” immediately get passed over. Like Thoreau, if I’m seeking illumination or catharsis through nature, I’m going to turn to the forest, not a book. Admittedly, I only picked up A Garden Amid Fires after my third or fourth time scanning the IR fiction shelf, but from the first page, Swan’s subtle and controlled prose kept me engaged. The storytelling remains confident enough throughout the collection to allow stories to blossom, seemingly on their own, without employing an overly intrusive narrative voice.

It’s this same sort of artistic subtlety that is the “garden” constantly under fire in these nine pieces. Whether portraying the challenges to creative integrity or the deceptiveness of beauty, these stories suggest that a fresh face can’t always be trusted. Two stories, “The Orange Bird” and “Exiles,” take on artistic expression explicitly as their topic—not a particularly easy subject to write about given the metafictional hurtles, but Swan approaches it adeptly. “Bird” features an aspiring Midwestern painter whose boss coerces him into setting aside his own work in order to produce knockoffs of garish but trendy still-lifes as a means to avoid financial ruin. “Exiles” follows three ex-patriots—a sculptor, a writer, and a novice watercolorist—in Spain who face implicit threats to their various fine arts, symbolized through the locals’ fanatical enthusiasm for the boorish—as the protagonists see it—art of bullfighting. Far from unspooling sentimental musings on the “good old days” of uncorrupted art, though, Swan’s fictional portrayal of personal aesthetics faces the encroaching flames of callous commercial societies not with resignation, but with hints of the artistic evolution necessary for her characters’ integrity to survive.
As recurring motifs, land and property set to be sold have the most potential to draw Garden into the realm of sentimentality, but Swan’s narrative acuity won’t allow it. As with the vulnerability of aesthetic subtlety addressed in “Bird” and “Exiles,” the threat of the loss of land in stories such as “On the Island” and the title piece becomes merely a backdrop for the more salient concerns of coming to terms with the finitude of life, learning to secure those things that are truly sacred, and being willing to part with everything else.
Arthur, the first person narrator of “Island,” confronts these existential concerns as he reflects on his childhood and debates whether to sell his stake in the island he grew up on off the coast of Maine. His memories dwell on the pursuit of his desires, namely in high school when attempting to court Trudie, an attractive local girl who humors herself by going out with him once and, years later, by getting into a string of ill-fated marriages for the sake of money or adventure. In an interesting restaging of Updike’s “A&P” at the end of the story, Arthur witnesses the toll time has taken on his high school crush when she returns to the island looking to buy land nearly fifty years after she’d left for college. Unlike Updike’s Sammy character, though, a mature Arthur is finally able to distinguish between fleeting physical attraction and long-term intrinsic value.
Swan’s attention to the grand themes in this collection, however, left me wanting more resolution to specific plotlines in a few places. While stories such as “Traveling Light” and “Women Who Don’t Tell War Stories” strike me as tightly written, multi-layered pieces, the narrative positioning of secondary characters in “Cochise” and the title piece feel, to me, a bit unresolved. To Swan’s credit, however, this dynamic is only noticeable because of the generosity and nuance she uses in rendering her primary characters. Regardless, A Garden Amid Fires builds to a strong cohesion with themes that echo through all nine of its stories: the loss of history, the redemption of selfhood, the resuscitative qualities of community, and the persistence of art. Garden invites us to explore that boundary between novelty and obscurity, being itself a fresh text with an out-of-step, somewhat cryptic title. Swan’s capable narration guides us through this territory where good art, if it is to survive, must reside.

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