- Comment and Witness
Magic Helicopter Press
134 Pages; Print, $12.00
The stories in Claudia Smith’s collection, Quarry Light, are stunning. Her language is pristine and nostalgic, and her characters are drawn with studied sympathy. And yet, the stories are quite literally stunning: they slowly lead us into the devastating clash of innocence and brutality. She draws us in with almost clinical, understated narration—so understated that the full realization of what has happened can only accost the reader with simultaneous hesitation and horror. To read this book is to take the same, ineffectual defense the characters employ or fully face their pain.
Recently, the topic of disturbing and violent literature consumed not only academia but also the general public, some of whom demanded “trigger warnings” in the literature classroom. Mainstream publications covered the debate over whether students should be warned in advance that some course materials, even literary fiction, contained scenes of trauma that may unlock deeply held pain within them. Some educators embraced the need for trigger warnings while others pooh-poohed any effort to protect students from both the content and the emotions evoked by such content. The discussion [End Page 19] has since disappeared from the public eye, but the discussion goes on in humanities departments and classrooms, particularly by those who study trauma fiction.
The development of critical theory regarding trauma fiction followed in the footsteps of those who studied both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Holocaust narratives. Theorists such as Anne Whitehead and Cathy Caruth have explored the disrupted relationship between the experience of trauma, human memory, and the act of writing. Caruth writes that “trauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available.” Whitehood examines the impossibility the writer faces as she attempts to turn the unspeakable into words, or “narrate the unnarratable.” Smith’s characters endure the unspeakable, but Smith has chosen a quiet, understated language to chronicle their fates.
Smith humanizes her stories with characters who have seen the unspeakable, whether it is violence or mental disassociation related to an unspoken trauma. Most of her characters are girls or adult women whose emotional development has been paralyzed by trauma; the past, for many of them, is both estranged and uncomfortably available, poisoning their every attempt to grow. Some books about violence against women shout; this one whispers, slowly gathering breath and sowing unease as innocuous, even joyful settings become sinister and mother figures fail to protect young, achingly vulnerable girls. Throughout the stories, calm becomes menace and no one seems to understand the depths to which these girls have been devastated.
Smith manages to balance sweet thrills of girlhood against the pain they experience. Delicately, she writes of seaside treasures found by a group of preteen girls, including a “glass disc full of colored blue water and pale sand. There were old shoes, baby bottles, fish …Oh, and a coral necklace. That had been a treat, how they rinsed it and handed it to their mother….” Another child finds assorted thrilling pieces of detritus under her house, nearly identical to her counterparts in the other story: “Once she’d found a glass disc full of colored blue water and pale sand. There were old shoes, baby bottles, rat skeletons, garter snakes. She wasn’t supposed to go down there. Her father had seen a coral snake in the yard once.” The small echoes solidify the connections between these stories, organic in their examination of how past trauma is never really past.
Because the grown women whose childhoods were a spectacle of shiftless and/or abusive fathers and alcoholic and/or absent mothers have never really grown up, they find themselves incapable of finding a narrative of growth although some of them, too, are mothers. They have no boundaries—even cries for help are inarticulate. One character is admonished by a coworker, who tells her “You should watch what you say...