In her short story “Victory Forge” Elizabeth Eslami writes from the perspective of a woman whose nameless younger brother is in the process of preparing to ship out to Afghanistan. At one point, while reading one of her brother’s infrequent letters home, she notes that he “adds ‘so far’ to the end of almost every sentence, like a constant flinch”. This beautiful little observation sits perfectly in the story itself, and in the collection as a whole – Eslami’s stories are full of characters on the brink of something, approaching disaster, or salvation, or realisation, or surrender. As one reads through her new collection Hibernate, one is constantly assailed by the same trepidation as the boy in “Victory Forge”. Nothing terrible has happened so far. Nothing has fallen apart so far. These characters are hanging on so far.
This sense of impending drama is masterfully handled. With each story Eslami conjures up a complete and believable world, draws the reader in, and patiently lines up the elements of a terrible fall, a stunning realisation, or a frightening climax. By the time a story ends, the reader is left breathless, on the very edge of their seat. Eslami captures the moment before a scream, the silence after an explosion, and she does so with an expert hand.
Take “Continuity In Filmmaking” for example. This story is told from the perspective of an accident victim who struggles with memory loss. The story trembles with important questions, the answers to which remain just out of reach, like a forgotten word or phrase. Does her partner Geoffrey resent her survival of the accident? Where is her gradual rehab taking her? What future can there be for her relationship? As in most of her stories Eslami asks more questions that she answers, but in this case her work is all the more powerful for it. The story doesn’t tie itself up neatly at the end – just like real life there is no beginning and no end.
“Everything Gets Mixed Together At The Pueblo” was another strong entry. In this story the possible culmination of events was a lot more obvious – the palpable hate that the narrator feels for the cowlike tourists she shows around a native American pueblo is only ever a short way from exploding. The tension builds as the story carries on, but it ends before there is time for a climactic release of temper. Again, Eslami resists the neat and satisfying conclusion and instead gives us something much more reflective of life. There is no way out for the protagonist of this story, no neat resolution.
More often than not Eslami pulls off this approach to storytelling with apparent ease, but there were occasions when I couldn’t help but wish that she had gone a little more directly for the throat of the story, or been the slightest bit more revealing when it came to meaning. “Jocko Hollow” is a superb time-bending story, which follows two brothers and charts their long association with a fishing hole in the woods near their home. It has its moments of drama, but most of these occur out of sight of the reader, leaving us to deduce what has happened from the few clues available. We see the aftermath of a shocking incident at the fishing hole when the younger brother is twelve years old – but the incident itself remains obscured. We see the release of one of the pair from prison, though not the crime that put him there, or the reality of his incarceration. Even the ending is a surprisingly muted event. The whole thing echoes with horror and hurt, but I felt as though it ended just short of me really understanding what Eslami was driving at. Why, I wondered, had these particular events formed part of the story? What connection was the writer indicating between them? In the end, I enjoyed reading just for the sheer texture and richness of the prose, but was left puzzled as to the meaning of the story.
The same goes for “Yana Land” and “MacArthur Park”. The first of these is the story of a stalled arctic expedition, and the second of two lovers traveling to Los Angeles to see a concert. Both were compelling reads, loaded with tension – but in each case I found myself wondering – what is this saying? What does it mean? What vital clue have I missed that might help me make sense of this story?
You might notice that the stories I’ve described so far are rather varied in terms of setting and subject matter. This is another of Eslami’s strengths. She describes the army training in “Victory Forge” with the same confidence and authority as the searing desolation of Los Angeles in “MacArthur Park” or the bleak and cynical tourist trap in “Everything Gets Mixed Together At The Pueblo”. The wide-ranging nature of these stories helps prevent the collection from becoming samey or repetitive. Indeed, almost every story in the collection felt deep and developed enough to support a full-length novel.
The third story “Hibernators” (from which the collection as a whole takes its name) is something of a departure from the others, and bears special mention. It branches out into the realm of the irreal and metaphorical as it tells the story of a couple who dig a hole beneath their home and retreat from the surface world into their own subterranean abode. It felt a little odd, as the other stories are either strictly realist, or only hint at things of a more surreal nature. It’s a welcome variation however, and is another story which – despite defying neat corners and bookstop endings – works beautifully.
Hibernate manages to be at many things at once: puzzling, vital, beautiful, stunning – and through it all the writing is never anything less than excellent, the setting and texture of each story so real you can practically smell them. This is a book that I will reread, and I sense that although I might have found some of the stories irritatingly puzzling on first encounter, I will relish the challenge of unravelling them in the future – they’re strong enough to hold up to multiple readings, and powerful enough to haunt my memory for weeks to come.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.