Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, ISBN 9781771483025, ChiZine Publications, Nov 2014. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.
Helen Marshall’s second collection, following two years on from her acclaimed Hair Side, Flesh Side, is a skilled butcher’s knife, slipping under the reader’s skin and lifting it away, baring nerve endings to the sharp bite of air. Viscera are reeled out and read; shameful appetites are exposed. By the end of the collection we are all complicit: Marshall’s world is one in which all flesh is alive, and everyone must eat.
Gifts for the One Who Comes After: the title implies family legacies, and families do populate almost all of the stories. They’re refreshingly complicated and realistic families, trapped together in love and dislike, and calling their legacies “gifts” is a dark irony. The collection opens with “The Hanging Game”, in which the protagonist muses “about the things our parents leave us, the good and the bad, and whether a thing is ever truly over”. But the legacies don’t only pass from parent to child; some pass from wife to husband, from grandparent to grandchild, or even from child back to parent. Always, those who come after are full of resentment, grief, and fear for those who went before.
Marshall has mastered the rich central metaphor. In “The Slipway Grey”, a husband ponders his late wife’s wedding dress, moth-eaten to tatters that mirror his own damaged lungs. In “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” a child adopts a soup can as a proxy for her coming sibling; she, the soup can, the new baby, and the parents are all equally hollow, filled with things which, once consumed, cannot be restored. In “The Gallery of the Eliminated”, a boy gets to see a supernatural zoo of extinct animals, but only when his family is on the brink of its own small extinction. Yet Marshall also avoids letting her central metaphors drive the entire story; often, it is as if she leaves a window open to see what else might enter, and when something does, it breeds through the story like a wild ferment, changing the flavour entirely.
One of the longer stories in the collection, “Ship House”, unites all of the repeated themes–family, inheritance, blood prices, cannibalistic consumption, stillbirths, twins, secret places, traditional songs and legends—into a recursive fairy tale where several generations of a family work through a curse. They sacrifice themselves and each other for whatever they hold dearest, and the price is never fully paid, the interest always passed on to another debtor. The tangled relationships felt intensely true to me: several generations of mothers and daughters shuttle between tenderness, expectation, fury, disappointment, betrayal, selflessness, loss and love, all of them keeping secrets, sometimes to save each other pain and sometimes… not.
Sometimes, in the world of these stories, pain isn’t something from which to be saved; it’s something to be desired, a secret handshake, a badge of honour. “In the Year of Omens”, my favourite of the bunch, centres on a young woman coming of age just as everyone around her begins to sicken. She feels grief, she feels horror, she feels empathy—she isn’t at all cold—and that’s why it is so believable and poignant that she also feels envy.
About half of these stories have appeared elsewhere, in magazines, anthologies and online, and have already garnered Marshall an impressive amount of attention. The previously unpublished ones are every bit as good, both individually and as part of this intensely connected collection. Read them and come away raw, flayed, a little bit closer to the secrets in your blood.