Reviews: Music from a Strange Planet
Book review: Like Kafka on crack,
Barbara Black tells stories of shimmering beauty
With Music from a Strange Planet: Stories, this Victoria writer’s debut story collection
is a remarkable celebration of the power of narrative.
Author of the article: Tom Sandborn
Publishing date: Aug 20, 2021 • August 20, 2021 • 2 minute read •
Victoria writer Barbara Black, in Music from a Strange Planet: Stories, tells tales that seem drawn directly from the world of dreams and hallucination while fully fleshed out with observed or imagined detail. Photo by Erin Clayton Photography.
Music from a Strange Planet: Stories
Barbara Black | Caitlin Press (Halfmoon Bay, B.C., 2021)
$22.95 | 184pp
“Tell me a story” and “that reminds me of a good story” may be the foundational statements in human existence.
We tell each other stories to reveal who we are, or to artfully obscure our unbearable truths. Either way, our narratives are the building blocks of our lives. This is true whether we consider the getting-to-know-you stories we tell new lovers, the political speeches we give or listen to, our self-serving excuses for bad behaviour, national and personal origin stories, the bedtime stories we tell our children or the often ill-considered micro fictions we tweet or Instagram.
Published short stories can often capture and render the shapeshifting, world-making power of narrative in a uniquely evocative way. Music From A Strange Planet, a debut story collection from award-winning Victoria writer, musician, singer and editor Barbara Black, is a remarkable celebration of the power of narrative that will both entertain and trouble the attentive reader.
The world of Black’s short stories is a charged, dreamlike landscape inhabited by insects, caribou and porcupines, dreamers, seers, predators and prey, both human and otherwise. (In setting the scene in one story, Black writes one of the most haunting and lovely lines in her book: “There was a slant to the light that made everything angular, like a scream that had hung in the air for a moment and had never been heard.”)
On this dreamscape Black gives us a dizzying variety of characters and stories, ranging from a little girl whose pet insect cricket gives her healing powers, to a woman who notes wryly after an unfortunate exchange with a possibly cheating husband, “She had never been so quick with a knife,” to a woman seeking implausible love on the cobbled streets of Prague. She also gives us a hilarious send-up of the world of high and conceptual art in the wonderfully funny, “The Watcher and the Watched.”
In lapidary prose that manages to be both spare and richly allusive, Black tells tales that seem drawn directly from the world of dreams and hallucination while fully fleshed out with observed or imagined detail. Think Kafka on crack. Think a luminous, shimmering visual paired with otherworldly and oddly menacing music. Think the emergence of a voice that will be important in Canadian fiction for a long time. Think what you like. Just don’t miss this exciting and impressive debut.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at email@example.com
Photo by Erin Clayton
Author Tags: Fiction Poetry
Barbara Black’s genre-bending debut short story collection, Music from a Strange Planet: Stories is concerned with issues of identity and emotional attachment, and its characters are often at their most vulnerable. An awkward child envisions herself as a beetle; an unemployed business analyst prefers water-walking over “rebranding” himself; and a biogenetically-altered couple in a squatters’ district visit an attic to observe a large cocoon. Ranging from subversive to comic, and humane to outlandish, Black’s fiction contemplates a strange world.
In addition to fiction, Black writes flash fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Canadian and international magazines including The Cincinnati Review, The New Quarterly, CV2, Geist and Prairie Fire. She was a finalist in the 2020 National Magazine Awards, nominated for the 2019 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize and won the 2019 Geist Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. She lives in Victoria, BC.
Music from a Strange Planet: Stories (Caitlin Press, 2021) $22.95 9781773860589
[BCBOOKWORLD SEPT 2021]
Music from a Strange Planet: Stories by Barbara Black
(Caitlin Press $22.95)
Review by Caroline Woodward
A masked woman is caught in the headlights. Her streaked red hair is flying, her deer ears and antlers are alert and her mottled wispy coat seems to catch her in the act of transforming from human to animal or insect…or perhaps it’s the other way around. A clock on the wall suggests a Cinderella-like deadline is imminent.
The cover art on Music From a Strange Planet, Barbara Black’s debut collection of twenty-four short stories—a collage she created herself—abounds with imagery and clues that recall the brilliant epigraph by Anton Chekhov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Some of these stories have been previously published in Canadian and American literary magazines like Geist and The New Quarterly. They have also been nominated for National Magazine Awards, the Journey Prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and won the Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. Clearly, Barbara Black is a writer to read and furthermore, the back cover is replete with kudos from three established masters of the short fiction form: John Gould, Cathleen With and M.A.C. Farrant.
In much the same way many of us marvel at the ability of musicians to create something fresh and new with notes and rhythms and sounds, I appreciate and admire writers who conjure up and harness a soaring imagination with linguistic dexterity. Black does this while seamlessly meshing her intellectual curiosity with a resonant emotional plumb line. What a treat it is to read her inventive, sometimes sad, and often funny stories.
A “regular good guy” ends up in a coma and escapes to the wondrous insect world of his Grade 7 science project. A retired acrobat encounters a retired dentist, both lonely insomniacs. One little girl rejects all that is fluffy, pink and pretty and drags her perfectionist traditional mother and playful papa into seeing another world of colours, textures and behaviours.
Insects inhabit many of these stories, a fascinating fusion of science and imagination bringing to mind Franz Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a huge insect. In Black’s story, a man named Bert turns into a bug and eagerly flies off to his liberation from a body trapped in a coma, thinking: “What did it matter? Only the law of dreams applied.”
The seared memories of childhood are especially poignant in stories like “Hot July Day” where a Grade 5 bully and her accomplice fail to repress the resilience of an undersized, long-suffering classmate. Then we are whisked away to the Bulkley/Nechako region of northwest B.C. where a solitary man, a taxidermist, forms a protective bond with a porcupine he calls Lydia. The trees in his valley are succumbing to a pine beetle infestation and the threat of fire in mid-summer is high.
”Belly-Deep in White Clover” is a soulful story about life and death in the wilderness which was first published in Prairie Fire and then long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It demonstrates yet again Black’s range of subject and setting, and her mastery of tone, or to use the musical equivalent, pitch, which is never flat or sharp, but bang on.
Perfectly attuned to both the wild and the domestic is the story, “Ghosts on Pale Stalks,” where nature on the West Coast is evoked in all its damp and fecund abundance. A single middle-aged woman is carrying an urn, at the urging of her somewhat exasperated friends, through the rainforest and to the ocean’s edge. Easier by far for others to tell us to “just let go” than it is to discard the physical and emotional burdens we’ve carried for decades. Or, before finally giving up on advice from Oprah and sifting through whatever insights tarot cards seem to offer, by taking decisive action to save our own sanity.
There is seemingly no limit to the inventive breadth and depth of the worlds Black conjures, with writing precisely embedded in each setting. The title story exemplifies her mastery of structure and dialogue and what I call the alchemy of creating fiction. In “Music from a Strange Planet” we meet Lucky Bee, who experiences prescient abilities for impending good news and bad, as well as the kind of synaesthesia that merges colour with sound. For example, magenta becomes F major while viridian is heard as B minor. Lucky Bee’s companion is a cricket.
Prepare to be transported to cities, to other countries, to a crumbling present and then off to a Centre for Biogenetics on an unnamed planet in the future. Other worlds unfold like wings in this marvellous book and beguile us. Reader, prepare to be enchanted.
Caroline Woodward is the author of nine books in five genres for adults and children. She lives and writes from somewhere on the road in a mighty BigFoot motorhome.
THE BRITISH COLUMBIA REVIEW
(Formerly The Ormsby Review)
1204 Thresholds and transformations
Music from a Strange Planet
by Barbara Black
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2021
$22.95 / 9781773860589
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
Barbara Black’s website informs us that Music from a Strange Planet, her debut short story collection, “began as a series of flash fictions exploring the intersection of human and insect existence” and “metamorphosed” into a larger collection with a broader scope. From a little girl with fly-induced psychic powers to a middle-aged man whose neural short-circuit places him into life as a water strider or a German cockroach, many stories do creatively imagine human-insect intersection; even those that do not often centre on metamorphosis. Yes, we are sometimes in Kafka territory; at other times, the terrain of Atwood or Munro is called to mind. The collection straddles the line between realism and fantasy/surrealism, sometimes within a single story.
The human-insect intersection spectrum is surprisingly wide, as stories range from the witty to the creepy to the quirky to the touching. In “Mastering Surface Tension” Everyman Bert’s tumble from a roof while attempting to dismantle a hornet’s nest lands him in the (delightfully named) St Francis of Assisi Medical Centre, where his neural short-circuit affords him a rich inner life as an insect with the ability to adopt new insect body parts at will. As time passes, wife Grace finds religion and a new romance, and tells her comatose husband that the family has decided to end his life support. Bert is now fully released into his other life, complete with a new mate. In the eponymous story, Lucky Bee is a synesthetic child with a pet cricket; working in tandem, the pair has extraordinary powers—to prevent suicide, alleviate loneliness, produce ethereal music, etc. The story ends with the demise of the cricket, concurrent with Lucky Bee orchestrating an event that has profound consequences for her parents. A mother in “Darkling Beetle” narrates the story of her daughter who, in grade three, elects to get unflattering glasses that alienate her from her classmates. The mother becomes obsessed with finding a stereotypically feminine Halloween costume for Cora, settling on a sorceress. However, Cora retreats further into herself, revealing she wants be a darkling beetle, not anything human. The two select the fabric together, and the mother, although despondent at how unconventional her daughter is, finishes the costume well. On the magic night, though, she becomes proud of Cora’s individuality; the mother has been transformed by her daughter.
“The Mist-Covered Mountains” has a similar touching effect, with an added fairy-tale quality. The presence of a fly in her ear induces an adopted Toronto child, Pippa, to recall, at some level, an ancestor, retired Scottish plumber Dugald, who was a philanderer in his day. On the day Dugald starts out of his retirement funk on a recipe-a-day project, Pippa and Robin, her mother, arrive in the Highlands, where, attracted by the smell of bannock, Pippa leads Robin to Dugald. As she invites herself in, Pippa is perplexed; what she recalls are events of the generation previous to Dugald’s. When Pippa and Robin return the next day to sample Bonny’s Fruit Slice, the only keepsake she has of her birth mother, a preserved insect, hearkens in Dugald memories of a romp with a bonnie lass. Touring Dugald’s property, Pippa unleashes her impressive knowledge of insects, and Robin reveals that her own mother immigrated to Canada from Scotland at age 21, and Robin knows nothing about her father. On the third night, after Bread and Butter pudding, the females leave Dugald with the amber enrobed insect, and on their fourth and final night, Pippa claims Dugald’s granny’s pipe. From a fly in the ear, familial bonds have formed. Encounters with common insects catalyze uncommon metamorphoses.
But less quotidian species are not forgotten. Some broods of cicadas show themselves only every thirteen or seventeen years, en masse, and Black examines human response to both. In “Magicicada” octogenarian swimmer Jean, anticipating the latest return of the seventeen-year cicadas and remembering previous returns, reflects on her life as the mother of a girl she adopted out and a special needs boy and finally takes steps to reconnect with the former. Cicadas prompt even greater transformation in “Sing Fly Mate Die” when an unlikely sad sack wins a romantic trip and, en route, encounters a thirteen-year cicada emergence and an unexpected romance. Both stories delight with their details of the bizarre visual and auditory beauty of the manifestations.
I found the more sardonic stories in Music from a Strange Planet, many of which offer contemporary satirical commentary, most compelling. “So Sorry for Your Loss” is a witty look at a black widow of sorts: a woman who mirrors the collecting of specific moths in her marriage selection. After pinning up the Acherontia styx, Mme. Styx enlists the services of a psychiatrist, Dr. Mori, who becomes husband #6. As she raises the killing jar to Bombyx mori, she realizes her dual obsessions may be at an end. “The Watcher and the Watched” is a clever mash up of academia, online dating and art: a cynical artist themes her first installation around her boyfriend’s thesis on fireflies, her second on penis photos potential dates send her, and her third on a performance piece in which she dons and then sheds the persona of a caribou – one of Black’s many statements on the precariousness of identity. “Walk on Water,” a look at a privileged societal sector, focuses on an aimless former business analyst with vague sculpting ambitions. Saul, a middle-aged husband and father, also has his eye on an exotic barista who, when he tries to take their casual acquaintanceship too far, undergoes a “reverse metamorphosis” (p. 57) toward frumpiness. Saul’s own quasi-metamorphosis begins when the story ends and his wife begins removing a plaster cast from his body. This story, like so many in the collection, manages to be at once biting and tender. More unsettling is “Strangely Luminescent in the Dusk.” Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s more dystopian work, such as The Heart goes Last , this story follows a couple, Attacus and Adela, through their transfer from human to Lepidoptera, a process that has made Adela photophobic and Attacus very weak. In a setting in which forests are dying and rare microgardens are blocked off from the public, the pair are in a liminal space – between earth and space, between human and insect.
From the above sampling (of fewer than half of the collection) readers will (rightfully) discern that Music from a Strange Planet is a diverse collection; the parts that make up its whole are not linked by character, setting, tone, or type. Nor are there many Joycean epiphanies inside its covers. Yet, transformations (of often lonely, isolated individuals) that may be internal or external, seem true or false, or happen to the least likely of characters, weave these stories together. It is no coincidence that “threshold” is an often repeated word. Although I at first found the capricious nature of the collection and the seemingly random ordering of stories therein a bit disconcerting, I have come to see it as part of the vitality, freshness, and charm of Music from a Strange Planet.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian novels, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset and promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism.
Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy’s recent reviews include books by J.G. Toews, Iona Whishaw, Wayne Grady, Angie Abdou, Josephine Boxwell, Caroline Adderson, Melanie Jackson, Estella Kuchta, Madeline Sonik, and Mary MacDonald.
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