Straw Flowers

Straw Flowers
"Straw Flowers" by L. Folk

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: What We Hold in Our Hands by Kim Aubrey



Kim Aubrey’s debut short story collection “What We Hold in Our Hands” is sensual, real, and richly contemplative.  Readers immediately feel a kinship with Aubrey’s characters—flawed and seemingly stunted as they may be—and can’t help but champion their efforts, the baby steps they take to self-awareness.

In “Over Our Heads,” a teen mother named Janelle longs to be rid of the shackles of marriage/motherhood and embrace the artistic life. This story teeters on possibility and poor decisions that never materialize, thankfully, due to the protagonist’s sense of morality. Janelle is tempted to have an affair with one of her sister’s ex-boyfriends; they meet periodically in a cafĂ© to talk about books, and although she claims she wants literature not sex from Jackson, she allows the sexual feeling to surface and longs “to pull Jackson close, to feel his bristly face on (her) lips, his hot, sweet breath on (her) neck.” Aubrey’s sensual style is titillating at best, but she makes her message quite clear: Janelle is a woman of conviction, despite all else and this is especially evident in her choice to have her baby, Alice:

I’d appointed myself her champion…I swooped down and saved Alice from non-existence…I’d grown her inside me and pushed her out into the world. But then came the hard part, the days and nights when I had to admit that I might not be up to the job, that the cape I’d donned might not be enough to separate me from the mothers I’d heard about on the news.

The trope of the super hero is appropriate on two levels: Janelle wishes to not only save but be saved and this hope is extended to all troubled mothers. Janelle imagines the superheroes of her beloved comic books “swooping in to rescue, not only the babies, but the mothers too.” What mother has not felt the weight of her sacrifice and needed saving? It’s a crazy-aunt-in-the-basement kind of truth all mothers can relate to and Aubrey does an exquisite job of laying it bare. More important, however, is the theme of coming through a struggle—despite the all too human wish to shrug it off and escape—and how this alone is heroic.

In “Unfinished,” Ann, an empty-nester struggling with her new identity, attends an interactive Yoko Ono exhibit that brings her face to face with her unresolved self, a creative, passionate self she has long suppressed. Ann answers a ringing phone in the exhibit (conveniently titled “YES”) and it’s Yoko on the other line. Ann tells her she loves the exhibit, where glass keys represent opportunities, shards of glass, mornings past, and the number nine, “a spiritual number, meaning unfinished.” When Ann tells Yoko she wants a glass key, Yoko tells her to take it. This is too self-indulgent for Ann at this point; she needs to return to the exhibit again and again, wait for Yoko’s call, miss it, long for her to call again, witness Yoko having her clothes clipped from her and “clutching her arms to her chest, bra straps snipped, slip pared away, breathing hard.”

Aubrey is remarkably patient with her character, meticulously crafting Ann’s wonder and reflection as she processes Yoko’s provocative lessons. Ann ponders the artist’s devotion to her work, comparing this to her own devotion to family and career; she eventually questions her own perspective and encounters her regrets full on. We see that the exhibit is Aubrey’s clever way of leading Ann back to the forsaken artist and recognizing this sets Ann free, allowing her passionate self to rise, as evident by an uncharacteristically bold act.

In “A Large Dark,” Andre, disgruntled and newly divorced, takes a watercolor painting class to escape himself, but finds his marital frustrations seeping into his work:

He painted the oblong of a big rock, but started to do the shadow too soon, and the paint ran. That flower of dark spreading across the rock tweaked his old impatience with himself. He felt the bad mood rise in his chest, rush through his blood…Now the night was goddamn ruined. Liz was the one responsible for these moods. The goddamn divorce couldn’t come soon enough.

We learn how Andre is guilty of objectifying women: he was most happy when his wife Liz was Suzy homemaker or using her body “to nourish their child”; he pays the housekeeper, Bridget, who has become a surrogate mother to his son, “to uphold (his) bourgeois” and seeks the attention of a classmate because he needs “a woman to make his life add up again.”  But just when Andre thinks Bridget and Liz are conspiring against him and the reader anticipates a backlash of feminism, it’s kindness Andre receives, which settles him, “erasing his failures, easing his guilt.”

Not all of the stories involve art as a catalyst to self-awareness, but I especially enjoyed the ones that do. I feel that I have become wiser after reading this collection of stories and perhaps more aware of my own subtle resolutions. These stories tell me, yes, there is resolution, despite our convoluted inner and outer worlds, and it can be freeing and it can be heart wrenching, but it is there and it should count.