Echolocation, Myfanwy Collins’s debut novel, begins violently, and the narrative never relents. A chainsaw accident, a haphazard ATV rescue, and a funeral for a lost limb: all within the five-page first chapter. Echolocation is a relatively short novel, but Collins pounds the reader with emotions and tense scenes, all delivered with careful, even lyric prose. The result is a first novel that carries the inevitability of House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus, while carving its own peculiar world of strained relationships between women.
Collins populates the book with imperfect characters, but these people range from selfish to selfless. Geneva, the now one-armed, newly-single character from the first chapter, returns to her adoptive mother’s home for caregiving. Marie is not long for this world, but Geneva owes her, and is soon joined by Cheri, Marie’s niece that she raised as her own. The fractured dynamic between Geneva and Cheri is palpable, and possibly the most engaging element of the novel. Geneva, though now scarred, was always the more attractive of the sisters, “loved far more” than Cheri.
Years later, Cheri still feels second-best: “she had lately been giving attention to a feeling that maybe Auntie Marie and Geneva couldn’t wait to be rid of her so that they could get on being mother and daughter without her hanging around.” Cheri represents her otherness through “tattoos, her clothes;” a general “oddness” that she cultivates. Although boys thought she was a “dyke” in her youth, she now lives in a world of temporary men: “They were the ones who gave her a ride home at night, dropping her off long after the bar had closed. Mostly she couldn’t remember their names or even what they looked like, their breath like weapons on her skin, frightened by the fierceness of her grip as she wrapped her arms and legs around them, maybe even wishing she wouldn’t let them go, but she did.” Collins is quite adept at voicing the language of desire. Cheri’s one-night stands are simply that, though: “As soon as it was over, she was done.”
Geneva and Clint are divorced, but the memory of him remains: both for Geneva and Cheri. Cheri still remembers the way Clint “smelled of hay and rain” when they were fifteen, and how he turned from flirting with her to actually [End Page 112] pursuing Geneva. Collins, in one of her many well-wrought flashbacks, shows when Geneva brought Clint to the girls’ “secret, sacred place.” Cheri watched the two skinny-dip, “and then she touched herself as they touched each other.” Cheri later feels guilty, because “Geneva was her sister. She was not blood but she was as good as blood.”
Cheri’s love for Geneva never quite fades, and this love is complicated by how Echolocation represents sisters and the sisterhood of women. Geneva and Cheri are related by circumstance, and Cheri’s love for Geneva is fully complex. Near the end of high school, Cheri had bought a Claddagh ring for Geneva, because “She would protect Geneva from harm. They would be together.” Clint proposes to Geneva after graduation, and while the ring is hid “in the back of her underwear drawer,” Cheri tries to get even closer to Geneva before the wedding.
Cheri’s pursuit unfolds against other strained loves and losses. Cheri’s own mother, Renee, lives for Bike Week: “one long kick-ass party full of sex and drugs and beer,” full of “thirsty, big-tipping, barrel-chested men.” Renee “couldn’t wait” for those tips, and “had been going to the tanning booth for months in anticipation.” Renee is ready for Bike Week, but years earlier, was fully unprepared to mother Cheri, and left her for Marie to raise. Now, Renee falls backward into a new baby: her boyfriend Rick is the father, but another woman is the mother.
Renee flees with the baby, and puts into motion one of the book’s devilish side-plots. She is woefully unprepared, yet again, for the responsibility: “hugs and kisses were easy and love was hard, especially...