By Ed Meek
L. M. Brown knows there are certain questions in life that we just never get the answers to. Or dare to ask.
Were We Awake by L.M. Brown, Fomite Press, Burlington, Vermont, 216 pages, $15.
The title of L.M. Brown’s new collection of short stories draws on a line from Emily Dickinson: “it is good we are dreaming — It would hurt us — were we awake –.” In her poem, Dickinson goes on to say “It’s — prudenter to dream.” Brown refers to Dickinson to imply that reality is so painful that we need to bury it. In her stories, Brown digs beneath the surface to unearth the painful truths we attempt to hide, from ourselves and others. In writing, as in life, it isn’t always easy to go deeply into tales of infidelity, accidental deaths, and murder. But Brown delves into those subjects with authority.
Many of the stories are written as mysteries, details of which are slowly revealed. Someone has been found bludgeoned to death behind a bar. It is well known the man cheated on his wife, so it could be any one of a number of people. In another story a woman driving home at night in the rain runs over a boy who suddenly appears in front of her car. Was the boy committing suicide? Whether he was or not, Brown goes into how someone deals with such a traumatic experience. In another story, a young woman finds out that the relationship between her parents and her aunt is much more complex than she thought. Most of the stories either take place in, or refer back to Sligo, Ireland, the setting of earlier books by Brown.
In this collection, as in Treading the Uneven Road, we are introduced to characters who reappear from earlier stories. In this way, an event is looked at through different eyes. In “Anniversaries” Brown’s characters reflect back on the murder of Nick Moody. When the author does this, it has the unique effect of making the reader think about the earlier tales in a fresh way. The strategy also brings coherence to a short story collection that we don’t often find. The mother of the woman who was working at the bar that Moody was found behind thinks about her daughter Margaret, who left Ireland years ago to go to Australia. “Nolllaig wanted to imagine Margaret as the little girl who stood shyly on the sideline of the green watching the other children play, but just as her daughter’s smells had disappeared from the room, it was impossible to hold onto that little girl.” The mother is losing touch with her daughter, and this reminds the reader of the way that relatives and old friends seem to fade away.
In the same story, Nollaig finds herself visiting a neighbor, Eilish, who loves cats and takes in strays. Nollaig suggests that Eilish name one of the animals that keeps showing up. But Eilish thinks “certain things can’t be owned, like a cat or grief. But Nollaig owned her grief. She held it to her, and on a certain day every year, she examined it.” A few pages later Nollaig “thought of all the things people kept inside, like the grief for a cat, and questions about a certain night.” The character wants to ask her daughter what happened that night, why she had to go all the way to Australia in order to escape. But Brown knows there are certain questions in life that we just never get the answers to. Or dare to ask.
There are also stories in Were We Awake not directly related to Sligo. In these there is a similar sense of unease or even dread, but, when reading them, I found myself wanting to return to Sligo.
Like the characters in Were We Awake, many of us, as we get older, continue to think about people we knew who died young: Mike, a kid I played basketball with in middle school, who died of “a mysterious kidney ailment”; my best friend Richard from high school, who died of early Alzheimer’s. There are no good explanations for these untimely deaths. L.M. Brown gives us much to think about in the hidden stories she brings to light.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.