One can be forgiven for approaching Jennifer Wisner-Kelly’s deceptively slender volume of short stories, Stone Skimmers, as a collection that skims the surface of things. One might excuse oneself for reading it in a single sitting, as I did, finding it difficult to put down or forget. But it would be unforgivable, or at least odd, if one doesn’t find the volume a tour de force of classic and formidable craft as well as talent. Written in easy, quiet diction and register—marks of confidence and command of the medium—Wisner-Kelly’s collection leaves the reader glimpsing the roots of her writing in extraordinary antecedents, as her work is reminiscent of Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
The first and the most Chopin-esque story, titled “Stone Skimmers,” sets in motion a series of linked narratives, in which location and locale are of primary importance. Characters are deeply etched into their habitats, landscapes, and seascapes, their relations with earth and water a simulation of their lives built around one another in what seems like a quiet tidepool, even with young adults flailing about in it. Wisner-Kelly’s descriptions of place reflect this symbiosis of people, place, and relationships: “The breakwater was doing its job. The sound of that work, that deep, throttling pounding, proved just how much energy it takes to shred something fluid, liquid and eternal.” On the blurry edge separating childhood and young adulthood, the feeling is undoubtedly akin to “sugary tastes in our mouths giving way to rank sea salt.” This convergent divergence, best compared to a tangle that resists the unraveling so clearly within view, is prelude to what the narrator feels watching the reclusive competitive swimmer, Evie Callahan, doing her daunting practice swim back and forth across the town reservoir, finishing to meet her crowning glory in the homage of Thomas, the sociable, popular boy from high school, whom all the girls like.
Penetrating attention to detail continues into the next linked story, “Thaw,” where an abandoned family’s heartbreak and disorientation are captured in naturalistic but haunting glimpses of life on a Vermont farm that has become a shipwreck of love, dreams, and hope. The desolations of abandonment and a Vermont winter are cloven apart by a chicken-thieving fox, who becomes the only physical, sensuous thing in the life of Adeline, an abandoned wife dealing with her children’s inarticulate anguish and her own craving for life, touch, and mitigation of loss. But violence waits right beneath the surface of unremarkable suffering, and Adeline has to choose between her disconsolate children and the ineluctable, unpredictable, lustrous young fox that her son wants to kill.
The other stories in the collection are also linked by watery geographies and the ubiquitous aura of unredeemed, yet ordinary loss. The stories do not suggest a “universal” human experience, but are deeply embedded in the specificity of singular, non-replicable lives. In “El Cenote,” a story about two very different but deeply attached sisters, water dominates the tale even though the story begins on a dry, dusty landscape. In an attempt to heal after a series of failed pregnancies, Billie visits her sister Rita, who now lives somewhere in Mexico. Very quickly, the narrative takes us underwater into a cenote, a cavernous sinkhole formed from the collapse of massive limestone rocks and thought to have been a sacred site for indigenous peoples. The calm and controlled Billie reluctantly accepts her sister’s invitation and challenge to join her in diving in the cenote. Rita insists that that it will be life-changing and will lift Billie out of her dull grief. The subterranean reservoir is indeed awe-inspiring and mysterious, eerily uneven in water temperatures by depth as well as extent, and a preternatural maze of tunnels and openings. Sinking into Billie’s anxiety about falling oxygen levels and blinding silt clouds, one prepares for the untoward if not cataclysmic. Hints of Fate and fatality prepare one for an outcome that, though open-ended, is reached at the last moment by cutting dark waters with the blade of fear and a rush of survival instinct. This heart-stopping story, told in simple, unadorned prose, simulates the stream of consciousness monologue of Billie, who tries, in a state of frozen misgiving, to plumb the depths of the cenote as well as the uncanny revelations of the fungibility of birth, death, family, love, and extinction itself.
A similar watery topography recurs in “Sirens,” a narrative threading back and forth between past and present, youth and age, memory and forgetting. On a lakefront stands a grandiose and morose house, once a mansion where young people lived and loved, now almost crypt-like and in danger of being swallowed by lake water. In the fraught relationship between young Nan and her elderly great-aunt Celine, there is doubt, resentment, and a power struggle deepened by intergenerational chasms in communication and compassion. Celine suffers from dementia that not only materializes the long dead in her consciousness as living flesh and blood, but also yanks her back and forth between the unlovely present and a past where she was desirable, privileged, and ruthless in claiming for herself the adoration and lives of others. Wisner-Kelly dwells intensely and repeatedly on Celine and Nan’s contrapuntal skin, body, hair, and breasts to mark the inevitability of aging and withering. Clearly, something of Celine’s aura lives on in Nan’s looks, youth, and health, but the remainder is an instinct for cruelty and power that finally drowns, one might say, in Celine and Nan’s competitive swim across the lake.
Wisner-Kelly’s stories are murmurs, not shouts, about life’s vagaries and its absolutely commonplace peripeteias lurking around every corner with the patience and desperation of ghosts more real than reality. The odor of death is everywhere, in each life, and in each hamartia that distorts or upturns lives that seem like straight shots when we begin. And the tragic flaw that causes the collapse of human lives, desires, and certainties, is existence itself. Jennifer Wisner-Kelly has found a uniquely gentle but mesmerizing language for presenting this age-old drama.
About the Reviewer
Nandini Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and has called the United States her second continent for the last thirty years. Wherever she has lived, she has generally turned to books for answers to life’s big questions. Her short stories have been published in the Bacon Review, the Bangalore Review, Ozone Park Journal, Storyscape Journal, Raising Mothers, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and Oyedrum. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, VONA, and the Craigardan Writers Residency (forthcoming). She was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), a finalist for the Fourth River Folio Contest for Prose Prize (2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), and a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019). She teaches Literature at Texas A&M University. Her first novel, Love’s Garden, is forthcoming in October 2020. She is currently working on a second novel about love, race, immigration and other traumas, titled Homeland Blues.