Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson, book review

Haunting tales of grief and loss from a blossoming talent

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There are 17 stories in Eliza Robertson's first collection, Wallflowers. As with any debut, there are a handful of rather mediocre vignettes, such as "Nightwalk", "Missing Tiger" and "Here Be Dragons"; but these nestle among some real gems that show that this young, already prizewinning Canadian writer has considerable promise.

In "L'Étranger", the narrator's early nightmarish description of her flatmate's discarded potato peelings, like a pile of "detached body parts", is an ominous foreshadowing of the spectre of the diseased body that haunts the text by the end: "The potato halves like heels she unscrewed from her feet, or milky lobes she plucked from under her knees."

"Slimebank Taxonomy", meanwhile, is a thoughtful portrait of postnatal depression, the sufferer of which bonds with her young nephew as they try to protect migrating cranes from drowning in a pond thick with slime. But it's the opening story, and that from which the collection takes its name, "Who Will Water the Wallflowers?", which is a strong contender for best in show. A teenage girl cat-sits for her neighbour during a week of heavy rain while her mother sips brandy-laced orange juice next door and "rinses grit" from the river stones she collects to sell to local spas for massages, piling them into the deep pockets of her housecoat just as upstream, the river bursts its banks. As she sinks below the muddy surface, her daughter clambers up onto the roof, while below the water laps at the flowered wallpaper on the stairs.

Grief and loss are the threads upon which the stories in the collection are strung together: the death of a beloved grandfather in "Ships' Log"; dead siblings and/or parents in "My Sister Sang", "We Walked on Water", "Where Have You Fallen, Have You Fallen?", and "Roadnotes"; the loss of selfhood in "Worried Woman's Guide" – a story set in the immediate aftermath of one woman's oophorectomy; even the murder of a husband in the gimmicky but nevertheless entertaining "Thoughts, Hints, and Anecdotes Concerning Points of Taste and the Art of Making One's Self Agreeable: A Handbook for Ladies", which fuses tips from a Victorian etiquette manual for wives with the story of an abusive marriage.

Robertson is often thus adventurous when it comes to her structures. From entries in a made-up ship's log; the epistolary; to a tale in eight parts, told backwards: she kneads and shapes her form to suit her differing moods and tones. It's the richness of her prose that draws one in, though: "She folds her homesickness into one chamber of her heart and tastes it when she chooses, like a salt lick."