REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson (February 2. 2017); 226 pages. Available from Interlude Press here

 

OK, so first off I want to state that if I could have figured out how to print this review upside down, I would have done it, since the narrative in Storm Season takes place in Australia, and I am just that corny.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with the real business of telling you about this book. Storm Season tells the story of a woman (Lien) who lives in Sidney but goes camping in the relative wilds with her small cadre of friends, gets distracted while taking photographs, and falls down a hole. Or ravine. Chasm. Some nature-y pit. That’s not the point, and neither is my absolute ignorance of outdoorsy stuff. In this way, actually, I am very like Lien—she’s a city girl to her core, and part of the reason she falls is her insistence on wearing inappropriate-but-fashionable shoes. (She’s a journalist who covers fashion and music. In this way, I am nothing like Lien, because nobody should ever read what I have to say about what to wear. It would be wrong.)

The point is she bangs her ankle bad enough that she can’t get out of the pit or move around much, and she’s rescued by a park ranger (Claudie), who—due to flooding—can’t get her back to her campsite and takes her, instead, to stay with her at her own cabin until the roads and driveable again.

So the two women are forced by circumstance to spend a handful of days together, alone with each other, in a cabin in the wilderness, while kookaburras…make whatever noise they usually do… outside the windows. A few things happen here: first, Lien discovers that Claudie is that Claudie, an ex-indie rock darling, and she’s fascinated. (Why did Claudie quit the band and stop performing to hide in a cabin and be a park ranger? Lien’s Spidey—no, Clark Kent—senses are tingling for the story.) Second, Lien discovers that Claudie, while her polar opposite in most ways (Claudie’s fashion sense seems to be about the practical and bush-ready), is fascinating. And attractive. And, well, stuff happens, and it’s everything you’d hope from a trapped-in-a-cabin-with-a-love-interest narrative.

Eventually, as all storms seem to do, the storm passes, the roads clear, and Claudie can take Lien back to her campsite and her friends. But since Claudie lives in the bush and Lien lives in Sidney, taking her back means letting her go, and paradise is, indeed, Mr. Milton, apparently lost. Of course, that can’t be how it ends, can it? (Hint: it can’t.)

Storm Season is a romance and, like a good real romance, it’s part mystery and part adventure, but with a good soundtrack (if you could hear Claudie’s music, at least). It’s got the inward spiraling focus of strangers-to-friends-to-lovers intensity, without ever feeling claustrophobic. Both characters have connections outside their world together, and there are narratives outside their love story which come to matter (intrigue among Lien’s friends, the story of why Claudie quit making music).

It strikes me that this is a novel about trying to get away but then trying to find your way back. Lien absconds to the bush for a vacay, but hurts herself and can’t get home again. Claudie leaves music, leaves hope, leaves love, but Lien shows her she must figure out a way back into those things. I don’t want to give away more of the novel, but much of its plot and character development are about this going-away-and-returning.

In fact, this kind of form—a run away from the norm, and then a return, slightly different, but still familiar—has a long history in art. In music, it might be the fugue (a form whose name translates as “flight”). In psychology, too, it’s a “fugue state.” In nature, it’s the echo. In literature, I can’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Decameron (great for those who want dirty short stories), in which the unifying tale is one of a handful of friends who escape to the country to avoid the ravages of the Plague, and pass the time telling stories. It’s also the history of the topsy-turvey festival (most notably nowadays, Carnavale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans) in which revelers turn every societal norm on its head (traditionally paupers dress like kings, men dress as women, fish fly, etc., but nowadays it translates into breaking from “good” behavior and getting drunk and running around half-naked while you’re having sex and cussing a lot, I imagine), but for only a limited amount of time to let off the pressure of being normal, like a steam valve that lets the pot go on cooking.

Storm Season is in this tradition, albeit with a lot less naked running around and more intelligence and feeling. What’s interesting is that it not only revels in the topsey-turvey love-affair-in-a-remote-cabin narrative, but also explores the flip side, what happens when Carnavale is over and somebody has to sweep the streets, when Lien must go back to Sydney and Claudie must stay in her remote cabin and paradise goes slipping away, or falls, maybe, into one of those chasms.

REVIEW: Into the Blue by Pene Henson

Into the Blue by Pene Henson (July 7, 2016); 236 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

“Sometimes we don’t get to keep things exactly the same. They can still be good.”

–Hannah, in Into the Blue

The Blue House is a crumbling, aqua blue seaside house on the North shore of Oahu. It’s home to a small found family of surfer kids: Tai Talegi, Ollie Birkstrom, Ollie’s younger brother Jaime, Hannah and Sunny. The ocean is practically at their back door, so they spend their days surfing the Banzai Pipeline and working or going to school when they must. The story centers around Tai, a budding board shaper, and his best friend Ollie, a world class surfer clawing his way back to the top after a pretty rough injury had knocked him out of competitions.

When Ollie gets tapped to compete in a worldwide tour surfing competition that will take him to places as far flung as Australia, Tahiti and South Africa, he asks Tai to come along as his supporter, board tech and coach. Though they have the “greatest friendship in the world,” once they’re away from their normal lives and everyday family, they discover that they can—and must—have more together.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and of course, things get in the way. But what’s central here is a kind of lighthearted-yet-determined struggling: the beachy, slapped-together home life of all the kids (who care for each other and work for each other to make a tight and fiercely intimate little family); Ollie’s climb back from injury to compete as a world class surfer; Ollie and Tai’s shaky, nascent love as it grows, a love which pulls them closer and farther apart like a tide, everyone’s desire to Figure It Out (the It being What to Do in the World and Whom to Be). This made me long for the days of that kind of brilliant patchwork life, full of uncertainty and people and love and risk and absolute newness, as difficult as it was rewarding. I remember windows wide open on weekend mornings, coffee cooling on the stove, sprawling meals we all cobbled together around a second-hand table (avocado, pancakes, a bowl of cold black beans, whatever we could scrounge, held together not by how well it fit but by how hungry we all were, how determined we were to call it a meal). The shared meal was the one moment of stillness we found together in our otherwise wide-scattered lives. This book puts me back there, in the best of ways. Life in the Blue House is like this.

It strikes me that this book is about people trying hard to hang on, trying to keep alive what’s precious to them. It’s what everyone in this book is doing: Blue House life is threatened again and again (by everything from absence to eviction) and the kids have to figure out how to persist; Tai tries to discover how to do what he loves while still staying loyal; Ollie’s trying to hang on to his life as a surfer though it’s really hard work that pulls his focus and sends him far away; Jaime’s on the cusp of college and all the kinds of leaving-behind that usually entails; Ollie and Tai find love but don’t know how to bring it home (for them, home threatens their love and their love threatens their home, and there’s no clear solution). Everyone is desperately trying to hang on. (And I’m refraining from making the point that surfing is also about hanging on, mostly because I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to surfing. I can barely balance myself on land.) Okay, and that’s another thing I can say: it’s about trying to find your balance. And let me point to back to that quotation with which I started: it’s about finding new and beautiful kinds of good, without needing to hold rigidly to what was good in the past.

There’s lots in this book you won’t see coming. That seems to me to be part of the point: insecurity, searching for solid ground (even surfers, seriously). There’s a lot that threatens to tip over, and the gentle suspense is tightened by the backdrop of Ollie’s progress in the worldwide surfing competition as we see it through Tai’s eyes. It is, at its heart, a love story between two men who have always been friends, but that story is intertwined so skillfully with a comeback story, and with several different coming-into-oneself stories. The writing and the pacing are exactly right for this: quick, smart, clean, but descriptive enough to stir up real longing in the reader.

Everything in this book presses you forward, and you move with it happily, looking for the end you both want and don’t want. Is that a surfing metaphor? Not intentionally. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about there. But it strikes me that bodies of water do that: ebb and flow, undertow, push forward at the same time you pull back. It seems like the whole exercise of surfing, like reading, may be self-defeating: the joy is in the brief ride that must be brief to be joyful. The very thing (the wave, the book) that thrusts you onward must inevitably come to an end and leave you behind.

Happily, unlike waves, which you can only ride once before they’re gone forever, you can re-read and re-read a book.