Beth Goldner's first collection of stories, the author presents us with a range
of characters whose lives are connected by loss, a yearning for love and by Goldner's
distinctive authorial style. The large
scenes of love and loss are illustrated with the mundane minutiae that stares
you in the face at life changing moments.
A man calls his wife to ask her to buy coffee, and hears the car crash
that causes her death; a woman reads an airport paperback as her fellow
traveller's life dissolves into panic.
In most cases the path to love is anything but smooth; in many it
The stories are
spread over a range of locations: Philadelephia, London, Greece, Italy. The characters are similarly diverse: a
manicurist, a disabled welder, an editor, a number of children who observe
their parents' lives. All are beset by
conflicts that Goldner evokes through deft use of dialogue and sparing
descriptions. Stories shift back and
forward in time as characters reflect on their current lives in relationship to
earlier incidents and experiences. This
allows Goldner to cover long periods of time in brief vignettes, adding a depth
of perspective to strong characterisation.
The stories are quirky, and wryly observed. How many women set out to be 'farm wives'? How many men seduce their fiancé's brother
on the eve of their wedding? How many
dying wives carefully groom their replacement?
Goldner shows us all these characters, and more.
fragmented feel to some of the stories.
A magazine is picked up and discarded, people hove into view then
disappear, there are chance conversations that capture a word or a mood. In some stories Goldner throws image after
image at us, like a ride on a downtown bus.
A lot of people die. Parents,
lovers, husbands, wives. Their deaths
propel survivors and observers into new lives and new relationships.
The only story
that didn't work for me was 'Outcomes', a story about a hospice worker. While the situation of this story is
genuinely moving, the character of the hospice worker felt observed, rather
than experienced. She learns too fast,
is too knowing of the details of death, and too involved with her work for the
novice she is cast as.
My favourite story
was 'Waxing', a redemptive tale of Peggy, a woman coming to terms with her own
past, and her daughter's commitment to helping the down and out. Peggy is a beautician brought unwillingly to
provide a free manicure for Kay, a former addict with AIDS, who has broken
nails and brown teeth. Yet in a brief
time Peggy comes to understand Kay, and to feel concern for her plight. It's powerful, but not sentimental.
Conflicts are not
always resolved in these stories. In many
cases they are left hanging, and I found myself turning the page for more. When it works, it works well. In Plan B a woman obsesses about the four
rings she heard on the aircraft intercom, a proxy for her failing marriage and
guilt over a secret abortion, grief for the loss of her twins. This is a tense and compelling story. The four rings mean disaster, the captain is
lying, the plane is doomed. When the
woman stands to march into the cabin and confront the crew, the flight
attendant's 'Can I help?' is the perfect focus for her alienation and
loss. It's pure Carver. In another story, Badass Bob, apparently an
ineffectual victim, finds himself in an unusual and unexpected way.
Wake is a strong collection that takes the reader to many places, and sees
the world from a range of perspectives.
It is a sensitive, ironic, and witty look at ordinary lives and their
© 2004 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien, Senior Lecturer, School
of Nursing, University Auckland, New Zealand.