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  • Sonar Sisters
  • Abby Nance (bio)
Echolocation. Myfanwy Collins. Engine Books. 199 pages; cloth, $27.95; paper, $14.95.

In the sonic world, "echolocation" refers to the way animals and people navigate their surroundings by making sounds and mentally mapping the echoes that return to them. Myfanwy Collins's debut novel by the same name borrows this construct as it reunites two sisters after the death of the family matriarch.

The novel begins with estranged sisters Cheri and Geneva, who aren't related by blood (technically Geneva is Cheri's adopted cousin), and fans out to include Cheri's mother Renee, Renee's ex Rick, an infant, and a neighbor. These characters eventually converge at the gas station and convenience store in upstate New York that Cheri and Geneva inherit after the death of the aunt who raised them. But Echolocation isn't about this family so much as it is about the physical and mental journeys each character must make. Cheri and Geneva and the other characters that populate this slim novel navigate their metaphorical dark roads by calling out to the world. When the novel opens, each character is careering towards some kind of reckoning. But these are characters who cannot take care of themselves, so this isn't a homecoming. The characters who are lucky enough to stumble towards something (rather than aimlessly self destructing) experience dark and painful epiphanies.

There is no room for nostalgia in Echolocation, and the result is beautifully written, stark prose. One character upon returning to the Mom and Pop convenience store of her youth remembers the store as "vast and white and gleaming." But as an adult, she sees "peeling paint and gutters stuffed full of leaves."

It may be stunning, but it is dark. Darker than dark. Make no mistake about it, Echolocation is unrelenting. Collins's characters inhabit a harsh world, one where people cut their arms off accidentally or leave each other suddenly and without mercy. And that's in the first ten pages.

The tightly wound plot works—plenty of things happen, yet it doesn't feel like it. Because this aptly titled novel is about finding your way, nearly everyone is on a journey and the characters have to move across mental and physical landscapes in order to finally collide. So between collisions, characters spend a lot of time pontificating. Their thoughts are imprecise, grandiose in their boldness, and their motivations murky. One character believes that going home will "bring her back to an understanding of the person she was and what she wanted."

The very thing that defines these characters, their grittiness, is the thing that makes them feel crafted and somewhat lopsided. That they take themselves seriously is to be expected, given their circumstances, but what makes them feel like characters is the one-noted-ness of their brooding, the singularity of their sad lives. The junkie is never not a junkie, the misfit never finds her way in.

Ironically, the brutality of Echolocation isn't in the bitter cold landscape or the grim reality that no one every really escapes the circumstances into which they are born. What makes this book dark is the lack of light. In a telling scene one character remembers his mother teaching him that "'People are cold..... And for most of his life he had agreed with her. But he had found some moments of warmth."

Collins seems to purposefully deprive the reader of that warmth. Perhaps in its place there are echoes that resonate throughout the book. Little images that recur in the consciousnesses of unrelated characters, like dust, which each of the female characters encounters differently. These recurring objects make for lyrical writing, and make the novel feel almost allegorical at times, but the final message feels unclear.

The characters' connections are tenuous at best, but in the rare moments when they bump into each other, the novel dazzles. Like the film Crash (2004), they meet in unexpected ways and the result is breathtaking. When the prodigal sister returns home to find her sibling armless, this deliberate and plodding story morphs into a page-turner, so artfully complex it is worth the set up...


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