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.
February 18th, 2013 / 12:00 pm