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August 22, 2019

Watermark, by Christy Ann Conlin

In order for a short story collection to really work for me these days, it’s got to be a book, which is not a popular opinion in short story circles, I realize. And while in other seasons of my life, I’ve had time for those collections that must be measured out (and I think I’ve even written blog posts in ode to them), right now I’m measuring my life in towers of books I’ve read, as compared to the even more colossal towers of ones I’ve got to get around to still—so I require momentum, some kind of arc, stories that complement each other and provide me with a very good reason to power through.

And Christy Ann Conlin’s latest book Watermark fits the bill exactly, which was why I was so happy to be devouring it last weekend. Most of the stories are set in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, and even the stories that aren’t are about characters who cannot become untethered from the place, no matter how they try. There are a few links between the stories, though they’re not completely overt. And also links to Conlin’s acclaimed first novel, Heave, which was published in 2002.

But primarily, this collection is drawn together by by characters who are witchy women, or supposed to be so. Women who are dangerous, wayward, and refusing to conform…and indeed a writer can cast her net wide in that area, and still come up with remarkable breadth, as Conlin does here.

Ragey mothers, rebellious daughters, reluctant wives, and furious sisters populate the stories in Watermark. My one criticism of the collection is a couple of stories with way too much expository dialogue. But apart from that, the book is terrific. The first story that stunned me was “Occlusion,” about a woman with a messy life undergoing an examination for lumps in her breasts—and it intermeshes with other storylines about still birth, infertility, friendship, sisterhood, rivalries, and the possibilities of a family curse. (What kind of thing is destiny?) I also loved “Back Fat,” about a boat, a bad marriage, and an old friend who sticks around like a bad smell or the devil on your shoulder. “Desire Lines” is about a woman whose father fashioned himself as a mystic and who grew up as part of his commune—until a terrible tragedy severed her from him forever. But for better or for worse? “Beyond All Things is the Sea” begins, “Birdie says to go tits to the wind./ And I am going tits to the wind.” A rollicking, jilting (in more than one sense of the word) story that takes place in a van that is a getaway car as Seraphina is driven away by her two best friends from what was nearly her wedding—and I think this was the launch point for Heave.

There is death and murder, and accidents that may not have been accidents, or maybe the moral of these stories is that there is no such thing as an accident at all. Instead, there is purpose, precision, and an incredible haunting darkness, all of which are the reasons why Watermark is such pleasure to read from cover to cover.

2 thoughts on “Watermark, by Christy Ann Conlin”

  1. Jilanna says:

    I remember loving Heave! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for this one.

    I prefer stories in book form these days too. Ideally, the connections are a surprise and a bit of a treasure hunt. “Did you see what they did there? Did you notice that this story answered that story’s question?” Etc etc

    1. Kerry says:

      Yes!! Those subtle connections that make the work so satisfying.

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