The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories
Valerie Martin
Random House, 1988
ISBN 0-679-72159-2

On moonless nights the sea is black. Ships sail upon it and shine their lights through the double blackness of water and air. The darkness swallows up light like a great yawning snake. On the beach people walk, looking out to sea, but there is no sign of the ships, no sign of the drowning sailors, no sign of anything living or dead, only the continual rushing and ebbing of water sucking and sucking at the shoreline, drawing the innocent, foolish lovers out a little farther. They laugh, pointing to the water. No one can see them. They slip off their clothes and wade in. The waves draw them out, tease them, lick upward slowly about her pale thighs, slap him playfully, dashing a little salt spray into his eyes.
"Sea Lovers."

Valerie Martin, best known for Mary Reilly (Hollywood made it into a movie starring Julia Roberts), ranks among the least-appreciated turn-of-the-millennium American writers. While her writing can be uneven, her best work has a powerful impact. Perhaps the quickest way to get a sense of Martin's style would be to read The Consolation of Nature, a slender collection of ten short stories. The tales spin across genre lines; all share Martin's powerful prose style.

Consider the passage quoted above, which opens "Sea Lovers." We're placed on an unidentified shore; we can imagine any familiar beach. Repetition emphasizes the night's darkness. The sea has been sexualized; the waves "lick upward slowly above her pale thighs, slap him playfully," and they are continuously "sucking and sucking." Yet the description also portends danger; the darkness which protects the "foolish lovers" also conceals them from rescue. The passage mentions "drowning sailors" and compares the darkness to "a great yawning snake," both images of danger. That serpent and nude lovers together suggests the ancient story of innocence lost, in the Garden of Eden.

From there, Martin will take us into one of the most original and disturbing mermaid tales ever written. As in most of these stories, the natural and human worlds collide, with varying consequences.

In "Death Goes to a Party," a proud woman dresses as Death for a masquerade. She finds herself drawn to a man who suggests that "death looks more" like his costume. He has managed a very real werewolf-- perhaps too real. The title story pits a family against a more mundane horror-- a rat. As viewed from a little girl's point-of-view, the rodent becomes as threatening as any supernatural monster. In "The Cat in the Attic," the fate of a doted-upon pet reflects and influences the relationship among a group of people. In "Spats," a jilted woman turns her anger towards her husband's beloved dog.

Martin privileges character revelation over plot. "The Parallel World" reads more like prose poetry than a traditional short story. At the same time, she sometimes provides excessive exposition, so that the weaker moments resemble essay excerpts. The degree to which you enjoy the collection will vary according to your own preferences.

The stories:

"The Consolation of Nature"
"The Way of the World"
"Sea Lovers"
"The Woman Who Was Never Satisfied"
"Death Goes to a Party"
"The Cat in the Attic"
"The Freeze"
"The Parallel World"
"Elegy for Dead Animals"

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