Sarah Goldstein’s Fables
Fables is a slim volume that delivers a systemic, calm dread that sucks the reader in. Torontonian Sarah Goldstein transforms seemingly normal events into deadly, confounding parables. The best short stories in this small volume convey a chaotic, unfathomable universe lurking just beneath a banal reality.
What is most appealing is the author’s lack of exposition; she gets right to the point: “After enduring many years of abuse, the children decide to do away with their father”. So begins the brief paragraph with only a number to identify its place in the book, (#6). One sentence later we read, “Before dawn comes they must heave him to the field and bury him, although one girl suggests that a burned corpse is harder to identity”. We know the deed has occurred but there is no punishment – the children are not caught and no one misses the errant father. Is that not divine retribution?
The spontaneity of events in each vignette comes without explanation and as a result, many of the epigrammatic paragraphs read like poetry: “Her insides are fluttering with the beats of tiny organs, there’s something stuck in her throat, and her eyes are wide and barely blinking” (#11).
In one of my favorite stories, a man and wife are on the verge of starvation. Still, the wife lays breadcrumbs on the windowsill for the sparrows. They in turn, “…cleaned her bushes of centipedes, crickets, and biting spiders”. Suddenly, the mundane turns macabre and the poor sparrows end up in a stew. We are never told this – all we read is, “That night the farmer returns to a better meal than usual, crunches down the stringy, bone-ridden bits in the stew”. What appears to be bizarre is on the verge of becoming a normal state of affairs. The wife has found a new food source and we surmise that sparrow stew will become a dinner staple. It’s gruesome but also, not so far-fetched. In between the lines we intuit that the couple is so desperately poor the wife will consider preparing anything for dinner. It’s that ill-defined edge that is transformative – the fractured barrier between what one believes to be true and how truth conspires to confound the participants. Goldstein is adept at revealing a gauzy layer that transmits a horrifying reality yet still remains hidden.
Fables is laced with social commentaries – abused children, embittered parents, the estranged, economic decay, mental anguish and butchered animals. Goldstein mingles ephemeral magical worlds with the truly grim reality of human nature: “The young man shoots the deer, grabs its head, and thrusts is face down so his mouth and nose are just touching the animal’s snout, where drops of blood and foam have flecked”. Another short story begins, “The goat is found hanging by its neck, just a few inches above the ground. The farmer’s wife was inconsolable because the goat gave them milk every day and ate the sharp-tipped weeds around her garden”. Animals fare poorly in many of the fables and Goldstein makes the point that dispensing needless suffering is the hallmark of our species. People inflict as much pain as they receive.
The author uses no proper names only “he” and “she” and sometimes, “we”. “A couple stands at the edge of an insensible forest. They are pale and stooped with sooty eyes and have walked a long time”. This anonymity conveys a sense that anyone, at any moment, could fall victim to one of the events in Fables. The idea that a forest can be “insensible” immediately prepares us for the worst. It is the opposite of how we normally perceive a forest – lush, full of life and with resources that we can control.
There is no control here. Spontaneity threatens complacency and we perceive that the couple in the forest will forever be mired in an interminable search for respite. The briefness of each piece – most are one paragraph – and the lack of titles convey a sense that we are trapped in a place from which there is no escape. What one believes to be authentic, prosaic reality suddenly descends into madness or a nightmarish blend of real and fantastic – and it happens in a very brief space. Those brief and disturbing moments are dazzling.
— Deborah Johnstone