Chris Power‘s first published story collection, Mothers, is a cathartic debut haunted by calamity, trauma, abandonment, but nevertheless teems with devastating detail. A daughter becomes a castaway following her mother’s passing, a couple’s hiking trip ends in sudden death, a father’s childhood abuse returns to haunt him during a Rhodes getaway — it is in this sad dimension, this black hole of unrest, that Power’s vision gleams. In many ways, Mothers is a composite of tales that illustrate how quickly our dreams can dissolve into nightmares.
While the bulk of these stories are razor-sharp, dauntless, obsessive and unforgiving — a powerful display of Power’s grasp on our mortal haunts — Mothers becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate with its too-many moments of droning, superfluous writing. Power’s stories are filled with rich imagery, yes, but there are times when the language becomes a bit indulgent, tiresome even.
As someone who likes character growth and examination, I felt these aspects were inundated with useless details — entire paragraphs committed to scenery, or some banal activity that may have been summed in a swift sentence. In most cases, I found Power’s focus to setting a distraction that drew me away from the characters who peopled the places he writes so vividly about. Because that’s the thing: many of these stories had incredible concepts.
In “Above the Wedding” a bride-to-be’s friend finds himself carrying a short-lived romance with her fiancé, a brief fling leads two lovers on a trek through Exmoor that ends in jaw-dropping tragedy in “The Crossing,” a father wards the vestiges of sexual abuse as a child looking into the eyes of his young daughters in “The Colossus of Rhodes” — these were among the beautiful, complex stories that struck an emotional chord but the writing itself becomes a journey that delays such gratification.
Another thing I grappled with (albeit subjectively) was the overly-aggressive depiction of same-sex intercourse between Liam and Miguel in “Above the Wedding.” This stereotypically tacky trope — a straight man unable to face his homosexuality uses forceful sex to mitigate his own denial, and the gay man, made to enjoy this, is just happy to be fucked by an attractive man — is downright boring. Men can be just as tender and affectionate with each other as they are with women, and there are other avenues of illustrating that than with such a painful fantasy. But I digress.
Let me be clear, though, this is a just small splotch on Power’s otherwise impressive collection. It’s just this trope — this silly assumption that gay men are merely beasts incapable of making love on the page as we are in real life — has been done and done again. So let it die a slow, painful, irreversible death, please.
Another thing I found a bit off about Mothers was that the title itself is a bit misleading, in that only a few stories concern central maternal themes, as we follow a woman named Eva in three of them. First from girlhood, when she loses her mother to cancer; again as a young woman roaming Innsbruck with her mom’s aged guidebook, and lastly at the end when she becomes a mother herself. However, I saw Eva as nothing more than a dispensable character whose narrative might have worked more effectively as a standalone novella, which would have worked to bring the collection itself down to a more digestible size.
Still, there so many moments of brilliance and visceral shock that left me stunned. One fascinating illustration of this appears in “The Haväng Dolmen,” in which the infamous burial chamber precipitates a terrifying recollection in which our narrator finds himself trapped inside a large cave that goes underwater at high tide.
“Now when I close my eyes I see the chamber, waiting to be filled. When I fall asleep, I feel the rock encase me. There are moments in life when we grasp what it is to die. If we’re lucky we forget them, but my luck has run out.”
After the seemingly unending prose, it’s moments like this — climactic revelations written with such glamour and gloom — that don’t appear until the last lines of a single story. It’s a beautiful clencher, but its charm is often marred by the lack of anticipation.
Even so, Power writes some of the most unforgettable last lines to a story you’ll ever read in a debut collection, and that’s something to be proud of. I just wished this momentum was consistent from beginning to end. Nevertheless, in the hands of someone who enjoys scenic writing, or at least more than I, they will absolutely enjoy this book. Power’s talent is all there, and the emotional heft in his stories offers such a relative, heart-breaking touch that left me weeping.
This may not read like a “positive” review, but I truly did enjoy most of what this book had to offer — I just believe it may have packed a harder punch with some skimming down in certain areas.