Book Reviews · 06/03/2013

I Am Holding Your Hand by Myfanwy Collins


[PANK] Books, 2013

Myfanwy Collins’s debut story collection is a gargantuan accomplishment, stuffing thirty-seven stories into under two-hundred pages. Many of the pieces found in I Am Holding Your Hand span no more than a few pages, and given the likelihood that readers will digest a handful of stories at a time, it might be best to equate Collins’s collection to the old maxim concerning one’s preference towards weather—if you don’t like one story, wait for the next one or the one after that. But even a fickle reader shouldn’t skip too far ahead; if the collection sags at any point, it doesn’t for very long as Collins mines a variety of scenarios that frequently involve women exploring sexuality, maturity, and the relationship bonds between family and friends. Flash pieces dominate I Am Holding Your Hand, and while some work better than others, the strongest stories illustrate what makes the form so unique and inventive. Generally speaking, flash pieces work best when an author manages to merge narrative continuity with a sense of poetic finesse, and quite often, Collins demonstrates an ability to do just this. Elsewhere, the longer pieces in I Am Holding Your Hand share a similar scope seen in Collins’s excellent debut novel, Echolocation, and reveal a writer capable of stretching her generosity and empathy for the sake of a more rounded story.

The collection begins with a trio of flash fictions, the most noteworthy of them being the first and third stories—both of them center on young, female children finding themselves ushered into adult worlds. The title story finds ten-year-old Jessie suffering from infected tonsils during the Christmas holidays, and rather than having them surgically removed and reaping the post-op rewards of ice cream, she’s stuck in her mother’s home taking antibiotics. It’s the first Christmas since her father moved out, and as she contemplates all of these things, she recalls hearing of her mother’s bout with tonsillitis:

Jessie’s mother had her tonsils removed as a girl, but they grew back, a fact Jessie found both disturbing and titillating. That humans might have body parts which grew back. Could this mean there was a cure for death?”

The idea of absence and the possibility of renewal linger over the remainder of the story, as Jessie’s father appears quickly in flashback before readers are told he dies alone five months later. Collins subtly links the image of infected tonsils to that of an infected marriage, and readers are left to decide if Collins’s ten-year-old protagonist is capable of drawing a connection between the re-growth of her mother’s tonsils to the possibility of reconciliation between her parents. The “cure for death” Jessie seeks may not only be in the sense of literal death but also the death of a marriage, and as the piece concludes, Jessie recalls a story her father once told her of his own youth, and she invites the idea of him to hold her hand, an invitation that suggests acceptance—that certain things cannot grow back, that there is no cure for death—and a growing sense of maturity.

Likewise, “The Daughters” hints at the idea of growth and maturity, albeit in a completely different manner. Collins tells the story in four brief sections and illustrates scenes of impoverished living in a household with three young girls:

Their mother never teaches them to wipe front to back or to brush their teeth before bed. One of the daughters goes for weeks without washing her hair until the teacher complains that she smells of their father’s cigarette smoke.

Their mother does teach them that if they wear their underpants two days in a row they will get sick.

The effectiveness of the story comes in Collins’s ability to paint these kinds of images; the simple language emphasizes the severity of the conditions and allows the reader to witness the scene without any kind of sentimentality. In fact, the briefness of the entire story allows Collins to avoid any sentimentality whatsoever.

The final section of the story reveals how the daughter’s father clean their ears by way of paperclip or the cap of a Bic pen, and although the practice is dangerous and cruel, the daughters mostly come away unscathed, but Collins ends the story by again hinting at the theme of maturity:

When he is done and the daughters are free to go the inside of their ears tingle red. The sounds of the world seem muted to them, seem dense.

The lines speak immediately to the physical agony the daughters may feel, but in a larger context, Collins seems to be suggesting something of the daughter’s emergence into the world outside the home, a world where conditions may in fact be no less severe than what’s existed in their childhood—a fact that, if true, would offer the potential to exhibit fortitude in another sort of world that’s just as “muted” and as “dense” as the one in which the girls grow up.

The transition between adolescence and adulthood doesn’t just come through pain, however. In “What He Told Me,” one of the better long pieces in I Am Holding Your Hand, the lingering promise of sex forces Paula to accept the approaching changes without much of a choice. After the funeral of his wife, the father of Paula’s best friend invites her to drive around town, drinking beer. Back at his house, he makes a pass at Paula, and somewhat surprised, Paula isn’t quite sure how to proceed: “I wanted it to go no further or to never stop.” The uncertainty of such a moment indicates Paula’s unwillingness to dive completely into the adult world and recalls the advice she received from her father, years before, as they hiked in the woods: “Take your time. Observe. Once you’ve figured out what you’re dealing with, you’re safe to move on down the path.” The story concludes with Paula still not quite ready to figuratively move down that path, but given the appearance of a young farmhand, she’s certainly willing to consider it.

A suggestion like the one Paula hears from her father echoes throughout much of the collection but certainly through one of the collection’s most challenging stories. Jeannie, the narrator of “Verbatim,” moves to a new town, and after a prostitute in the neighborhood is murdered, she begins sleeping with a college student she’s working with as a speech pathologist, takes on the guise of the dead prostitute (in the process of this she gives a blowjob to an unsuspecting barber), considers becoming a prostitute, and encounters trouble when she picks up her first customer. Jeannie’s destructive behavior is fascinating to watch unfold, but some readers will wonder where such behavior originates. Collins puts her character through a lot, and in the fragmented style through which the story is told, it’s sometimes difficult to piece together motivation. Jeannie’s decisions seem rather impulsive, and while they certainly propel the story forward, the lengths to which Jeannie plunges into the lifestyle will either have readers accepting such jumps or rejecting such a premise. Ultimately, the story succeeds due to such questions, and the challenging aspects of “Verbatim” only confirm Myfanwy Collins to be a challenging yet rewarding author.

Daunting as it may be to work through the thirty-seven stories found inside I Am Holding Your Hand, the flexibility on display offers enough evidence of the sort of talent Collins possesses. The work is always provocative, engaging, and entertaining, and in addition to the fantastic novel Echolocation, the oeuvre of Myfanwy Collins continues to grow, and so too should her readership.

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Myfanwy Collins was born in Montreal, Canada, grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, and now lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review. She is the author of the novel Echolocation and a young adult novel, The Book of Laney is forthcoming from Lacewing Books in 2015.

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Brian Seemann is a part-time teacher and bookseller. His latest fiction appears in REAL, Forge, and Fast Forward.