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 unchallenged reputation (for opening doors, greasing cogs, silencing opponents, ushering in freedom), the distribution of power is deeply skewed. Heartless states, institutions, and individuals (especially men) embrace it tightly in Bátiz’s downcast stories, which the Toronto author calls “born out of personal pain.” Power is at hand in Parker’s gripping novel, but its appropriate application torments the narrator, a distraught woman on the “slow decline into middle age.”
Heartbreaks and betrayals are relatively mild upheavals in “Stars.” As a subject, Bátiz (“Plaza Requiem”) is drawn to the dark corners of life, with “unimaginable hardships” recalled in one story, “unlucky years” in another, and a “shattered life,” a “grief fog”, and recurring nightmares in still others. Although they depict unique horrors, Bátiz’s characters are hard to tell apart.
From missing and murdered children (as well as suicidal ones) to sexual abuse, dementia, detention centers and the drudgery of minimum wage work, the stories form a catalog of despair. The Americas—Argentina, Canada, Mexico, the United States—are identical insofar as misery proves impossible to avoid. A woman in “The Other Side” wonders about the border between Mexico and the United States. On the one hand: “poverty, corruption and violence reign and dreams are born dead”. On the other, she learns: “There is no kindness and generosity here.” The narrator of “Svetlana from Montreal” concludes: “I thought life would be better but it was exactly the same shit as at home only with an inhuman winter. A Mexican woman in ‘Dear Abuela’ remembers her former homeland as a ‘lawless purgatory’ of murders, shootings and kidnappings, but paces Vancouver and sees, ‘There’s nothing here in this landscape … who can comfort me.”
By serving so much misery on such operatic ground, “Stars” presents a singular vision to an audience that could hope for more variety than nineteen stories.
Hillary, in “What We Both Know”, also deals with pain. She reluctantly cares for Baby Davidson, her charismatic father, a “great Canadian literary talent” whose glory days are fading as his dementia worsens.
As she cares for the baby at the family home “in the quiet of small town life” near Orillia, Hillary is deeply pensive. His sister committed suicide a year earlier; her despair stems from her father’s sexual abuse. Hillary knows this and is an aspiring writer tasked with writing her father’s “life work”, a memoir. What truths and how many of them should Hillary tell?
Reluctantly, Hillary takes steps toward independence (hampered by alcohol addiction, admittedly). Writing is his ticket, as is taking a stand on his father’s terrible legacy. Seeing herself as “made of fragile and imperfect things”, this “half-participant” struggles for self-esteem (“I have nothing to show for myself”, she says, “I have no idea of who I am”) and authorial certainty (“I cannot produce a sentence worth reading”, she judges).
As her father consumes old television appearances and interview material to maintain the secrecy of his “impending complete lack of consciousness and identity”, Hillary tries (and still tries) to break free from the “old routine tired” that she shares with her father. She yearns to protect him, his family, and his legacy, but also to denounce him as a “snake” that she envisions as tightening around young girls’ throats.
Writing about the legendary life of Baby (Parker presents a few chapters from the memoir in preparation) and summoning hazy and harrowing memories of the past, Hillary captivates as an individual with poignant vulnerability and a certain capacity that is eroded by self-doubt. and a moving past. She’s Parker’s formidable invention, of course, and her anxieties—along with her wild wit and missteps—are testament to Toronto’s Parker (author, formerly, of “Dumb-Show”), whose elegant, expressive writing anatomizes complex family relationships and the simple difficulty of finding correct courses of action.
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