Short Fiction Reviews: Kat Howard and Laura Chow Reeve

As I try to improve my own writing and get more publication credits under my belt, I’ve been paying closer attention to what I read, and I thought it would be fun to share of what I notice about my favorite stories, whether that’s short fiction or my favorite novel of the month. So I’m trying a little experiment. For the rest of 2017, I’m going to share weekly reviews. Mostly, I’ll be doing short fiction (whether from online publication, anthologies, collections, or podcasts), and the last week of the month I’ll talk about my favorite book that I’ve read that month (or maybe just a favorite book in general, depending on the month and my mood).

For this first week, I want to talk about A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds, by Kat Howard, and 1000-Year-Old Ghosts, by Laura Chow Reeve. Both of these stories feature mother-daughter and grandmother-granddaughter relationships, with some striking similarities.

A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds, by Kat Howard, sang to me the moment I started it. I kept stopping and staring into space, needing to take a moment to process how much I loved it. But why? Howard weaves the utterly magic into our mundane world in a way that I deeply admire. The voice and tone of this story won me over.

Howard doesn’t worry about the ordinary world in this story. Instead, she focuses on the lushness and mystery of inheriting a house full of birds, 20 years after the narrator’s grandmother dies. She grounds the magic in concrete details – the specificity of each bird, their behavior and nesting material – in a way that drew me in. The narrator’s reaction – surprise, followed by curiosity, fondness and eventual acceptance – was perfect, but it was the house and the birds and I loved most.

The mystery of the birds – what are they? and when that is answered, what does it mean? – is interwoven with a more personal arc. Over the course of the story, the narrator comes to understand why her mother and grandmother were estranged, and to empathize with both of them. The ending suggests a change of heart on the part of her mother. That was unexpected, but makes for a nice emotional resonance with the rest of the ending, which I will not spoil for you.

I listened to 1000-Year-Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeve on episode 9 of the fantastic podcast Levar Burton Reads, so for me this story received the benefit of Levar Burton’s soothing voice, but I think I’d still have loved it, even without that bonus. It’s not exactly fantasy, but it does contain fantastical elements. This is a story about a young woman and her Chinese grandmother, who teaches her how to pickle – and thus forget – unpleasant memories. The story alternates between the narrator’s experience growing up with this unusual practice – as well as her mother’s acute disapproval of said practice – and brief scenes of her grandmother’s earlier life with her now deceased husband.

The dual perspectives give the reader a sense of how wounds and coping mechanisms have been passed down through generations. With only the grandmother’s POV, we wouldn’t see how her choices have repercussions on the future, and with only the granddaughter’s POV, we wouldn’t understand where the pickling of memories really comes from, as a tradition and a habit.

The daughter’s naivete, the mother’s concerns, and the grandmother’s stubbornness and pain all felt authentic and sympathetic, even (especially) when they disagreed. For such a short work, the characters were deftly realized.

This doesn’t have the same kind of happy ending as Howard’s story, but that’s ok. The ending (which I will not spoil here) is inevitable and beautiful, bittersweet but not tragic. While I would love to know how the narrator’s life continued after the last line, the story ended on a resonant note.

Both of these stories explore how certain affinities can skip generations, and how a daughter can sometimes be closer to her grandmother than her mother ever was. Howard’s narrator was not close to her grandmother in life, though her death allows them to bond in a way that was not possible with her mother. In Reeve’s story, I got the sense that the grandmother, though the pickling of memories, had given her granddaughter a coping skill that her mother would not, and that was part of the basis of their relationship. In both cases, gifts skip a generation. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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