by Meghan Lamb
Birds of Lace, 2017
In her new novella, Silk Flowers
(Birds of Lace, 2017), Meghan Lamb explores the contours and limits of human relationships, parental and conjugal, through the lens of chronic illness. Lamb's novella is structured into two halves, the first showing the wife's struggle with an unnamed and undiagnosed disease, and the second showing the husband's reaction and adjustment to her increasingly incapacitated condition. The illness itself shares a similarity to the (disputed) illness of electrical hypersensitivity and is metaphorical of a dehumanizing modernity, a secondary theme in Lamb's work.
The novella's narrative flow is both intense and stream-of-consciousness circuitous, illustrating how chronic illness can erode an individual's personhood and irrevocably change established relationships. Lamb further develops her main characters by showing their primal memories, which contribute to the novella's overall mood and tone. For example, as the novella progresses, the wife's memories of her late mother become more frequent. Her mother suffered from chronic depression, which Lamb portrays as an all-encompassing fog, smothering, suffocating, and which turned her mother into a shell of a person: "She never leaves the couch except to lie in bed. Her mother's life is just a series of small movements back and forth, all strung together on a stream of cigarette smoke." (p. 26). The wife realizes that her unnamed illness threatens to transform her as depression transformed her mother: "Since her mother was buried, most memories are occupied by shades of light." (p. 9). The dirtiness of her childhood home and the neighborhoods adjacent to the husband's and wife's home are emblematic of that danger.
In the second part of the novella, the husband becomes his wife's supportive caregiver. However, he too has memories which shape his view of the marital relationship. Lamb reveals the husband's deep-seated values through his childhood memories, in which he identifies with his father and consequently with masculinity, purposeful activity, the valorization of war and, later, unexplained absence. When his mother is unable (or unwilling) to explain his father's absence, after the husband (as a boy) sustains a broken arm, he wishes to escape her: "He wishes he could roll away, but his good arm is pressed against the guardrail. He is trapped there with his mom." (p. 62). Consciously or unconsciously, the husband appears to take his wife's deteriorating condition as a personal affront and as a liability peculiar to femininity. The loss of their physical relationship illustrates the growing distance between them emotionally and spiritually. After another attack, "He watches her in silence for a moment … [T]he waiter calls the ambulance. He watches it arrive. He steps back when the paramedics usher him aside." (p. 41). As the wife's condition worsens, she becomes increasingly absent from the marital relationship. The novella's action climaxes when the husband, out of sheer frustration, provokes her in an effort to get a response — any response — from his wife.
Some of the best passages in the novella are those which show the casual dehumanization present in everyday life. For example, when the husband takes a second job where he must engage passersby on the street to make his pitch, "People look ahead toward the streets they need to get to. They move in straight lines toward the buildings with the floors that are their destinations. They don't look at him because he's not a building." (p. 69). The narrative turns darkly comical and eerie when the wife, in one episodic event, chips away at her own personhood by ridding herself of extraneous memories:
A childhood neighbor (zap) A teacher (zap) A
childhood boyfriend (zap) A real boyfriend
(zap) Her mother (zap) A nameless boy with
gentle hands. Her mother (zap) Her husband
(zap) Who was he? Who was she? It doesn't
matter … (p. 29).
The novella's intensity could be sharpened by subtly scaling back the narration as a means to invite more open-endedness into the storyline. Nevertheless, Lamb's novella is a thought-provoking read which explores how experiences of past crises and fundamental relationships continue to shape and impact interpretations of unfolding crises, personhood and relationships in the present. Silk Flowers
invites readers to engage in such an exploration and ponder the questions such an inquiry raises.
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