According to the publishers, the short stories in Josephine Rowe’s collection, Here Until August, explore the point of change in people’s lives. And yes, the collection delivers that – the ten stories examine thresholds, internal and external boundaries, and points-of-no-return. But there’s also a theme of belonging in each of these carefully crafted stories, explored through memory; through people being in foreign places; and people returning ‘home’ (but not necessarily ‘belonging’).
The collection opens with Glisk, a story about the return of the narrator’s older brother to a small town. There’s a past trauma and a deceit, and when the deceit is revealed, it tips everything the narrator has known sideways.
I’m waiting behind the flyscreen, feeling everything I’d neatly flat-packed springing up in me.
Rowe’s timing in this story is impeccable, as it is in Real Life, where a couple cocoon themselves inside their apartment during a Montreal winter, with the goings-on of their neighbours the main entertainment. The twist is delivered with little fanfare and so takes the reader by surprise.
Winter lingered impossibly, and still we managed to squander it. I had thick Russian classics and some design software to master…
Two stories stood out – Sinkers and A Small Cleared Space. In Sinkers, we find a mother and son, and the town that they once lived in, flooded for a hydroelectric scheme. Rowe’s beautifully delicate descriptions of the underwater town contrast with the brutal reminisces of the flooding, and with a task the son is determined to complete.
In A Small Cleared Space, a woman grapples with the loss of her stillborn baby –
The body has no memory for pain. She’d read that somewhere and believed it true. Now she knew it to be. The year had been an agonising parade of firsts, and at each her grief had astonished her. She wondered if it would be easier to have something definitive to point to, an instance of physical impact: slipping in a wet stairwell… But then there would just be different whys, equally useless, and there would still have been enough room for guilt, cunning shapeshifter that it is, to creep in at the edges.
Rowe captures the isolation of grief, and gives it sharp focus by setting the story in a remote cabin, surrounded by frozen lakes. The woman reflects that while the baby was also her husband’s loss, it was her ‘failure’ – the story is heart-wrenching.
There’s a carefulness about Rowe’s writing – every word seems considered. There’s nothing overdone, and yet her descriptions are lush –
Across the pond the trees looked soft, naked maple and dogberry with branches furred at the edges, like velvet antler fuzz.
I think the most remarkable feature of this collection is the depth and complexity of the interwoven themes. Each story challenges the reader to consider how they might feel in a similar situation (and I say ‘feel’ rather than ‘do’ because the focus is on the emotional rather than action). Change represents a loss but it also marks a new beginning, and that is evident in each of the stories –
Your whole life could be like this. Arriving always in darkness and waking to something extraordinary.
Here Until August was my first bit of ‘active’ Stella reading and I would consider it a worthy winner should the judges decide that it’s the year for short stories.
Raff’s brother Fynn hasn’t been in town for many years. On his return, they eat mussels steamed in white wine.
Ti has a theory about labour-intensive food, the kind where utensils are a waste of time and attempts at grace just make you clumsier. This theory holds: the empty shells pile up between us and the talk spills easy, as if we’ve been doing this every Saturday night for years, the three of us.