by RK Biswas
Not Everything Lovely and Strange is a Dream
by Shellie Zacharia
Published by Monkey Puzzle Press
The title of this slim collection, plucked from one of the stories – “Fairy Tale Perhaps,” sets the tone right at the beginning. The reader is about to enter dreamscapes that are not exactly dreams. Imagination flies slantwise. Often reality is a glimpse through the corners of one’s eyes, where boundaries blur. The sixteen pieces flash and shimmer; flit past. Some leave, a sense of disquiet trailing behind them.
In the first story, curiously and also aptly entitled “She Calls it Storytelling,” a woman makes up stories about her guitar. Her husband isn’t fooled and tells her so. But that doesn’t stop them from playing the game, letting the music grow.
In the second – “The Artist’s House” – a voyeur spies on an intimate scene between an artist and her lover. The piece is a paragraph long sketch that reveals a lot about the artist. The narrative raises two questions in the reader’s head: who is spying on the artist, and why?
“Metamorphosis,” the third piece, is a fable about a woman. On the surface it seems to be another story about a woman emerging from a bad relationship, but something about it, makes one look again, and that’s when one catches a glimpse of the blossom, gets a whiff of something floral, and sweet. What remains behind is a picture of hope.
“Fairy Tale Perhaps,” true to the title it provides for the collection, is surreal and sublime. A sleepless man, at once a poet and dreamer, manning a 24-hour convenience store, gets a visitation. But this strange encounter is hardly a dream, or so the writer wills us to believe. For the protagonist, it is a life altering experience.
“Thirteen Sentences and One Fragment” is literally made up of thirteen and a half sentences. The protagonist falls in love with a poet, who tells her that her sonnets need not rhyme. This is a beautifully written piece, neither poetry nor prose, but something in-between, lyrical in its device.
In “Two Women in Blue,” one woman dyes her hair blue for a boy/man at a music store, holding on to hope as she offers up a strand. While the other in need of a new colour for her bedroom, gathers courage enough to ask the man behind the counter about his. Two separate pictures, but the narrative makes them part of the same canvas.
The seventh story – “After Your Big Sister Calls You an Immature Nuisance” is a list story much like list poems.
The eighth, “Call Becca” is about over-protective older sisters who can’t accept the changes in their brother’s life. This piece is written more in the style of a conventional narrative, but what makes it blend in with the rest is the pathos, left behind like skid marks of a reversing car.
In “Sid’s Music Cavern,” a woman (in search) drives north and wanders into a music store, and there, where the story ends, is where her song begins.
“Follow” is an allegorical tale of a pair of flip-flops leading a woman towards romantic adventure.
A young woman spends time with her grandmother, who she hasn’t seen in a long time in “Wind Chime.” Both have aged, changed, and their shared memories need bridges. This is a quiet story; one that conceals a sob and cracks hearts open like pistachio shells.
The twelfth piece in the collection – “Two Short Pieces in Which Birds (Real and Imagined) Appear” needs, in my opinion, a better title. The narrative comprising two parts – “Sleeping in the Summer Rental” and “Paper Crane” – are more prose poem than flash fiction. Delicately written, like water colours through words, they capture dreams and portray dreams of hope through bird motifs.
“Yesterday My Dog Talked” is a surreal piece, strange like a fall through Alice’s rabbit hole. But the dog, a teller of tales fantastic, desires something very ordinary.
“We have a Bear” is the story of a couple, who could be elderly and going through an empty-nest-syndrome or childless. The bear is real though, as real as deep need and/or vacuum can be. There is a taste of honey in the narrative; for didn’t Shelley say: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought?”
In “Of Course I will Return It” the narrative begins from the title itself. But what is it that the protagonist intends to return? In the story she describes the life of a woman whose blue bicycle she intends to take; an easy thing to return. One comes away with the feeling that there is more to it, and there is something else that needs to be returned.
The final story has a title that sounds like a story in itself – “This is not the Start of a Joke: A Monkey and a Banana were riding a Tandem Bicycle.” Here, Zacharia shifts away from the dreamscape tone of the preceding stories, and gives us a tightly woven narrative about budding romance, spiced with humour. The conclusion works well, both for the story as well as for the collection as a whole:
“We ride off into the sunset,” he said.
She looked at the sky. Orange. Pink. “Let’s ride.”
And ride we do, with the trail ends of each piece still fluttering somewhere in our minds. After all, this was a strange and lovely cruise, at the end of which one is left contemplating as the narratives merge with the horizon.
RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. Authorspress, India published her short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—in December. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi is due out in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com.