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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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“Elsewhere” — Emma Shi

What a strange story. I wish I understood the classical references better. I know about Antigone — she was the one in the cave with the dead brothers. And Medea — she killed her children.

Classical figures serve their purpose as personified ideas to study and comprehend more clearly. So Medea isn’t just a devastated mother driven to infanticide. She’s also the idea that we could be driven to anything if we were backed into a corner. Don’t think yourself immune to madness, you don’t know what’s coming.

This story uses its central figure, the “I”, to personify a particular tension between the need to run away and the need to be at home. We want to fly off on an adventure, to a new world, but we can’t escape the pull of our roots, buried in tight, and we’re afraid to pull too hard.

“I”, or she, does run away, and wherever she goes she encounters the women of ancient Greece. Again, I wish I could understand better what they each mean. It would probably clear things up. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of intentional symbolism. No one speaks except in italics — what if, what if, what if —because instead of telling, they show. They show her how they’re pulled in two directions as well, and somehow, they bring her to terms with her turmoil.

It’s not a straightforward story. It’s a lot of suggestion and sensual description, more like poetry than strict prose. The classical juts up against the modern. Medea attacks her with a knife on an airplane, to give one example. She has strange dreams in the story, but it’s hard to argue that the whole thing isn’t a dream.

The author is from New Zealand, which you can tell by the choice of language: carefully simple, slightly detached, but weirdly lush. I’m glad to see New Zealand writers use sophisticated references. Sometimes we’re scared into only using the things directly around us, to prove that we’re from New Zealand, I guess, or to pander to critics who want us to talk about sheds and small towns and alcoholism.

I’ve got to be critical myself, though. Despite the high end classical references, the prose had loud notes of self-indulgence, and this inevitably made the sentences ring false, like perfectly rounded pearl beads on a necklace. And I would have appreciated a plot, or at least some sort of physical contextualisation for the dreamy sequences.

But now some nice criticism. It’s an atmospheric journey. She doesn’t use over-flowery language, and this makes the environment that surrounds her characters quickly and effectively felt. “Blue, blue sky and the rush of white marble.” And maybe this was because I was also listening to SoKo when I read this, but the emotion could be felt too. “All the memories disappear, even the warm ones that I kept safe when I thought no one was watching.” Observations like that about loss of love, ones that come from the writer’s own experiences, are the most potent ones.

Read this short story — did I mention it was thirteen pages long? I never manage to mention the important things. If you can understand classical Greek references and then please explain them to me. Read it if sometimes your heart feels like it’s being softly tugged into two bits. Read it if you’ve ever been to the Mediterranean and when the author says, “I have never seen so many stars in my life. They reflect off the ocean around me. There are no signs of civilisation for kilometres and kilometres,” you know just what she’s talking about.

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