Book Reviews · 08/27/2018

Terrarium by Valerie Trueblood

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Counterpoint Press, 2018

On a list of undervalued American fiction writers, Valerie Trueblood’s name would surely be at the top. Within a decade she’s published a novel and three fantastic collections that showcase a unique and vibrant style. In her fourth collection — Terrarium: New and Selected Stories — highlights from her previous books appear alongside fresh work that demonstrates Trueblood’s versatility. Terrarium is ambitious in scope and should cement her reputation as a contemporary short-story master.

These stories are cerebral, complicated, and immensely powerful. The point of view is often embedded in a single character’s brain, influencing the way words flow as thought patterns onto the page. These stories read as if untethered by time with characters seamlessly moving between action, contemplation, and memory. This allows for extremes of character complexity and empathy. Trueblood’s characters are fully fleshed-out humans who reach out from the page, desperate to be understood.

Trueblood’s subtle stories linger in a reader’s consciousness. She achieves this by crafting each line as a secret, silent bomb. Reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s writing, these stories contain dozens of small, beautiful images and observations that are unimportant to the plot but are so profound a reader must pause, appreciate, and savor the line again. Take this example from “Phantom Father,” after Annette’s first husband has committed suicide: “In time Annette married again, and the three children she had with this husband would find bits and pieces of these old events in themselves, like tea leaves.” Trueblood is excellent at finding gorgeous, tangible images that resonate with her readers, making each and every sentence a pleasure.

Terrarium is structured into sections based on the author’s previous collections, creating a time-lapsed evolution of her career. The opening stories from her first collection — Marry or Burn — focus on ordinary people and the mysteries of their interconnected lives. These stories tend to be longer and more analytical, dissecting every interaction and emotion with surgical precision.

“Choice in Dreams” is an especially compelling story from this section. Molly and Jeff are mourning the death of their neighbor Mike. Unbeknownst to anyone in her life, Molly had long been in love with Mike for reasons she couldn’t fully understand or explain:

Why dream of someone else’s husband? A man whose wife dragged him out of bed on workdays because he couldn’t get up, he was hung over. A man who couldn’t fix the washer in a faucet . . . A man now bald, with legs atremble from chemo and radiation. A dead man. Is this a choice one would sensibly make, even in a dream?
On the positive side, a man who adored children, who could give you the hour of birth and the distinctive biography of each of his five kids. A man who made his living writing about crime, and had been seen to shed tears in the morgue. . . . A man who went out on his own and bought his wife a garnet necklace he could not afford, because she loved red and all she had left, she said, was a good neck.

Similar to the fiction of Alice Munro, these are stories that sweep through the totality of their characters’ lives, focusing in on the invisible tendons connecting people through time, place, and the smallest of interactions.

The next section features work from Search Party, Trueblood’s second collection. Much like in Marry or Burn, these are generational stories built by beautiful little lines dropped with a dizzying frequency. But a reader can witness her style migrating as the Search Party stories become tighter in form, even as they maintain their sweeping scope. “The Stabbed Boy” is an especially elegant story in its subtle treatment of violent themes:

The summer of the stabbing he attended Vacation Bible School. Who took him there, along with his sister, who did not survive? His teacher, Mrs. Rao, from the Methodist church where the Bible School was held. How did she know them? Had anyone in his family ever been to a service there? That was for his biographers to answer.

“The Stabbed Boy” suggests rather than tells, a story spanning decades woven into very few pages. The piece’s ending left this reader breathless, weepy, and grateful for life.

The next section contains work from Criminals, Trueblood’s third collection. The stories here are more dangerous and violent, tales of desperate attempts to survive grief and live one’s life. The story “Criminals” is a gorgeous example. The narrator Jean struggles to move forward several years after her toddler son died in a car crash while she was driving:

Jean knew, she knew now, that people would always surprise you, most of them would have gone through something or other and not be intact themselves. It was a mistake to think the average person had absorbed no great blow, just because of smiles, the pushing of grocery carts, the driving of cars, remarriage. It was always a surprise, terrible, not kind, that this thing happened, this growth of membrane over a raw opening, and that membrane thickened, the rawness grew more and more opaque, and slowly vanished, so that you couldn’t tell by looking that a membrane was there.

The final section of the book features ephemeral-but-explosive flash pieces no longer than four pages, a new style for the author. The beginning of these Terrarium stories contains an epigraph from Wallace Stevens that encapsulates the evolution of Trueblood’s writing: “ . . . everything is meant for you, And nothing need be explained.” These final stories are less written than whispered, continuing — in the reader’s mind — to follow the trajectory left by their powerful endings. “Cherries” describes an infant tumbling into a pile of cherries at a grocery store. The story is light and sharply drawn until a turn in the final paragraph:

This happened in the summer before the war. The war was on its way. But that day in the store there was no reason to know of or think about any other baby, let alone one being born in the opposing city. How could we have known another boy fierce for every delight was coming into the world amid groans and laughter, the summer we watched the rescue of a baby of our own from the cherries?

The flashes tackle a variety of themes, including a piece titled “Book Review” that muses on the ineffectual nature of book reviews. But like “Cherries,” many of Trueblood’s flashes address the central theme that crosses all her works: the strength of intimate human connection through space and time.

What’s so striking by the end of the collection is the totality of Trueblood’s work. Such range emerging from a single author demonstrates her meticulous control over the design of every sentence. The book is a true career achievement, filled with heartbreaking stories exploring our intertwined lives with empathetic grace. Valerie Trueblood’s Terrarium is an immersive experience no reader will want to miss.

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Valerie Trueblood is the author of the novel Seven Loves, and the short story collections Marry or Burn, Search Party, and Criminals. She’s been a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a recipient of the B&N Discover Award. She lives in Seattle.

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Caleb Tankersley is the author of the chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift. He has won the Wabash Prize in Fiction from Sycamore Review and the Big Sky/Small Prose contest from CutBank. More of his stories can be found in The Cimarron Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Permafrost, and other magazines. He is the Full Length Editor for Split Lip Press.