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May 28, 2012

All the Voices Cry by Alice Petersen

Summer is here, at least in spirit, and the cover of Alice Petersen’s short story collection All the Voices Cry meant that I had to read the book at once. (Book has been reviewed well already, and been long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.) Though these are not stories of lazy, hazy days; the fish ain’t jumping and the cotton’s not high. Petersen’s are most often stories of summer places out of season, or of people out of place in those summer places. And the places themselves– rural Quebec, Petersen’s native New Zealand, even Tahiti– frame characters’ expectations in terms of idyll, pastoral, and usually (as is the way) experience comes up short.

Alice Petersen knows her way around a good sentence: “We knew he drank at night on the boathouse steps; the more beer he drank, the more bottles there were to get a refund on.” This from the first story, whose title “After Summer” is a good way to frame the whole book. A young man is looking back at summer memories and the darker shadows behind them, contemplating his single father’s loneliness, and how the notion of family got away from them. In “Among the Trees”, a widow contemplates the life she’d built around her artist husband which manifested in the artists colony they built together on her family’s property. This colony is a centre the collection revolves around, many of its stories loosely linked to its characters and geography. We see the widow and her husband from the outside in “All the Voices Cry”, in which Freya, another widow, a neighbour and a stranger, walks through the surrounding woods in winter and contemplates her “sustaining illusions”.

We meet Freya again in “To Catch a Fish”, avoiding entering her cabin where her new lover is cooking dinner. And fish aren’t jumping indeed, to great consequence, we see, when Freya makes the choice to choose herself and her solitude, the ground she stands on. In “The Frog”, with subtle gestures, a single mother considers what ties her to her life and beyond it, and how people without children move through life like amphibians (which is something to wrap one’s head around, just what exactly Petersen means by this, and the process of engagement steeps the reader further in the story).

The last six stories in the collection are different from the others, removed from the Quebec landscape we’ve been planted in thus far. Also, these stories are more storied, artificial, set-up than the others (which is not a criticism). Though I could get this impression from these stories’ settings’ unreality in my own mind. They take place in New Zealand gardens, on the International Date Line, on Tahitian cliff sides, foggy beaches. A few of them also have a mystical nature, and maybe that’s where the airiness comes from. A man enacts futile attempts to defy a psychic’s predictions, a woman dares to abandon her vexing husband in the middle of a tropical nowhere, a couple attempts to ignore potentially devastating news by going through the motions of sight-seeing, characters’ own lonely histories bubble up inside them.

None of Petersen’s characters is quite where they’re meant to be, where they want to be, and they see themselves in new lights against the unfamiliar contexts. The book is slim, the stories are subtle and quiet, and though their impact is not always immediate, All the Voices Cry is a collection you might want to meditate on, its pages getting dog-earned and stained with coffee rings as the summer wears on.

UPDATE: Speaking of quiet depth…

2 thoughts on “All the Voices Cry by Alice Petersen”

  1. saleema says:

    I’ve heard Alice read twice from this collection, and both stories made me kick myself for not bringing enough cash to her book launch. I must get a hold of this book!

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