Power is a currency like no other in Martha Bátiz’s “No Stars in the Sky” and Fawn Parker’s “What We Both Know.” Desired for its unquestioned reputation (to open doors, grease wheels, silence opponents, usher in freedom), power’s distribution is profoundly lopsided. Heartless states, institutions, and individuals (men especially) clasp it tightly in Bátiz’s downcast stories, which the Toronto author calls “born out of personal pain.” Power lies within reach in Parker’s engrossing gut-punch of a novel, but the suitable application of it plagues the narrator, a distraught woman on the “slow wilt toward middle age.”
Broken hearts and betrayals are relatively mild upsets in “Stars.” As subject matter Bátiz (“Plaza Requiem”) is drawn to life’s dark corners, with “unimaginable hardship” recalled in one story, “years of bad luck” in another, and a “shattered life,” a “fog of grief,” and recurring nightmares in still others. Although they describe unique horrors, Bátiz’s characters are difficult to distinguish.
From missing and murdered children (as well as suicidal ones) to sexual abuse, dementia, detention centers, and the drudgery of minimum wage toil, the stories form a catalog of despair. The Americas – Argentina, Canada, Mexico, the United States – are identical insofar as misery in them proves impossible to avoid. A woman in “The Other Side” ponders the Mexico-US border. On one side: “poverty, corruption, and violence rules and dreams are born dead.” On the other, she learns, “There is no kindness and generosity to be found here.” The narrator of “Svetlana of Montreal” concludes, “I believed that life would be better but it was exactly the same crap as back home only with an inhumane winter.” A Mexican woman in “Dear Abuela” recalls her former homeland as a “lawless purgatory” of murders, shootings and kidnappings, but surveys Vancouver and sees, “There is nothing here in this landscape… that can comfort me.”
In serving so much misery at such an operatic pitch, “Stars” showcases a singular vision to an audience that might hope for greater variety from nineteen stories.
Hillary, in “What We Both Know,” copes with pain too. She’s a reluctant caregiver to Baby Davidson, her charismatic father, a “great Canadian literary talent” whose glory days are fading as his dementia grows.
As she cares for Baby at the family home “in the quiet of small town life” near Orillia, Hillary’s deeply pensive. Her sister committed suicide a year earlier; her despair originated with sexual abuse by her father. Hillary knows this and is an aspiring writer tasked with writing her father “life’s work,” a memoir. What truths and how many of them should Hillary tell?
Haltingly, Hillary takes steps toward independence (hindered by alcohol dependence, admittedly). Writing is her ticket, as is taking a stance on her father’s terrible legacy. Seeing herself as “made of flimsy and flawed things,” this “half-participant” struggles for self esteem (“I have nothing to show for myself,” she says, “I have no idea who I am”) and authorial certainty ( “Can’t produce a sentence worth reading,” she judges).
While her father consumes old television appearances and interview material to maintain the secret of his “impending complete lack of awareness and identity,” Hillary tries (and tries again) to free herself from the “old, tired routine” she shares with her father. She yearns to protect him, his family, and his legacy but also exposes him as a “serpent” that she envisions as constricting around young girls’ throats.
Writing out Baby’s storied life (Parker features a few chapters of the memoir-in-the-making) and summoning hazy, distressing memories of the past, Hillary captivates as an individual with a poignant vulnerability and a sure capability that’s eroded by self-doubt and an overwhelming past. She’s Parker’s terrific invention, of course, and her agonies – as well as her wit and her wild missteps – offer testimony to Toronto’s Parker (author, previously, of “Dumb-Show”), whose stylish and expressive writing anatomizes complex familial relationships and the sheer difficulty of finding correct courses of action.