Joseph Riipi’s novella, A Cloth House, reads like a transcript of a long-ago dream — fragmented, steeped in mist, sticky with synesthesiac description that cannot avoid its own hieroglyphic symbolism. A woman remembers her life to us with language that moves the same way our memories do, slipping between the concrete and abstract, alternating between inspection of the tiny objects we keep near to us and the larger fears and loves which we infuse into them.
What we’re presented with is a meditation on memory as told to the narrator’s sister who died too young. The guilt of her death, the deterioration of the mother’s psychiatric well-being, and the father’s stoic — if not somewhat cowardly — ambivalence. The story’s chronology is pleasantly muddy, which lends the work the ability to do what it is meant to do: to function less like a timeline, and more like actual memories — popping up when you least expect them, washing all of the facts over in time-stamped emotion.
“I know that in hitting me she had been hitting herself, taking the blame and painting the rest of us with it, which is why I can’t believe that badness was ever really real.”
The eponymous cloth: a safety blanket, the walls of a princess’ castle, one of the novella’s many mantras. The island: where her family lives, and perhaps more than that, how they live. While the latter serves as physical boundary, the former serves as another boundary within that boundary.
Something that great language-driven fiction does is to leave the impression within the passage of what is not said, and to point at that impression with both fingers. To point to the empty bed and allow the reader to infer its importance. Also, to speak conditionally of what could/should/would have been:
“He might have explained that love was the one part of a person’s life they could not in some way control, or change, or make believe differently.”
So much of what we are told is what was left unspoken, undone, unfelt. The lives not lived, the fairytale fantasies unfulfilled. The narrator explores the intimacy of suffering and how, in a soft, oceanside light, perfectly beautiful that suffering can be.
The intersection of impossibility and reality are accomplished in sentences such as:
“We are told that we can be whatever we want to be, and we assume our parents are who they are because they wished it so.”
affording us the ability to interpret the characters as real as we want them to be.
The narrator speaks to us in a way that is fuzzily familiar, the way we were talked to as children, or, even more so, the way we speak to ourselves late at night or early in the morning, the way we talk to ourselves as we calmly turn our lives over and over, with objective tranquility ballasted equally by love and sadness. The way we think about things we’ve cherished and lost — or given away — this is how the unnamed narrator recounts the optimism of her father, deterioration of her mother — and the dead sister.
Riippi’s written a love song to memory and mothers, and the way all unsettling love songs are written: superimposed upon a melancholic minor key. It’s an emotional work wrought with sweet dialogue as usually heard in poetry.
After reading A Cloth House, preceded by the equally haunting The Orange Suitcase, I’m left wanting to see what Riippi does next.
Joe Trinkle is a fiction writer and essayist currently living in Philadelphia. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Pear Noir, Atticus Review, The Bygone Bureau, New Fraktur Arts Journal, Subtopian Magazine, among other places. He is the author of I’d Never Liked the Chinese, a fiction collection due to be published this fall. You can sort of follow him at joetrinkle.com.