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broken water

ISBN: 1412039045
By Paula Martin Morell
Review by: Grace Tierney

07/06

When is a collection of short stories not a collection of short stories? When it is a short story cycle. As a keen short story reader, I must admit to never having encountered Paula Martin Morell’s chosen form before despite finding dozens of books on the theory on Amazon when I went looking. I feared that such a categorization bordered on literary pretence and might hide a novella in all but name, however I am happy to admit my mistake.

The cycle of ten stories, set in Little Rock, Arkansas, follow the lives both past and present of Elizabeth and her daughter Ellie. Elizabeth, whose life we visit at ten yearly intervals, struggles to survive her remote, alcoholic parents and never finds a lasting love. Ellie, whose first person narration and seven stories dominate the cycle, allows cynicism to damage her dreams and relationships.

With six of the ten stories previously published in various magazines I delighted to find that each stands alone and none read like mere “chapters”. In particular “the channel” (the tale of a dramatic puppy delivery) and “new born” (where Ellie shaves her head in solidarity with a cancer sufferer) stood out for me as having true drama and growth for the characters.

While the tale of this dysfunctional family could have been woven using a conventional novel format, the use of different viewpoints, voices, many different time periods, and linking motifs makes for a complex tapestry perhaps best read in condensed and powerful short story bursts. One clear motif – birth – was subtly used in everything from a shorn head to seeds.

Two aspects of the narrative disappointed me, however. The father and brother figures received only bit parts in the drama. That certainly focused my mind on the female story, but may have taken some richness away from the family’s dynamic. Toby, the brother, is a stereotypical techno-geek. Tom, the father, despite a promising scene where he is swept up in classical music, struggles to be more than a classic mid-life-crisis-guy. Amazingly we uncover scant detail on how Tom deals with his wife’s affair and even less information on why Toby doesn’t contact his parents even when one of them falls ill. Ellie disregards men but it is a shame to allow this to shape the entire cycle, particularly as the final story and the cycle’s finale needs Ellie’s relationship with Toby to convince readers.

My second difficulty was the feeling of chill and silence which pervades the stories, even those set in sunshine. The family members lack understanding of each other passions and motivations after years of miscommunication. This dearth of emotional warmth is so well depicted that I struggled to empathize with the characters themselves until I read most of the book. At that point I began to sympathize with Elizabeth which was interesting as Ellie ran the first person narrative thread and is closer in age and circumstances to my own life.

So is broken water a short story cycle I could recommend? It is definitely well-crafted, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting despite the rather sad subject matter. Paula Martin Morell knows how to write skillfully. Her use of an unusual format held my interest throughout despite my initial misgivings. Unfortunately I found the actual plot simply too downbeat for my personal taste. If you enjoy seeing into people’s souls and examining the true familial cost of distance and betrayal then this is one for you. At the very least it should inspire any reader to talk more to their loved ones, before it is too late.

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