Friday, June 19, 2009

Balancing on the Edge of the World, by Elizabeth Baines--a review

Elizabeth Baines' collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, is a slim volume, but what it lacks in heft it makes up for in emotional power. The stories themselves are often quite short--some might even be considered micro-fiction--but there is nothing small about what they have to say.

Here are some of the stories in a nutshell:

A group of young people, drunk, go out for a pizza, and realize they are not much better off than the beggar they meet outside the pizza shop.

A struggling writer realizes she is being conned by a flashy film producer, and a power struggle ensues between them.

A privileged teenaged boy grows up perhaps more quickly than expected when he is held up at knifepoint.

A child experiments with her "powers" as she watches her father leave their family.

One of the most touching stories, called "Compass and Torch", is about a boy who lives with his mother and stepfather who goes camping with his dad. The boy's vulnerability and the father's inability to relate to the boy are so true, and so heart-breaking.

"Going Back" shows the mix of exhaustion and hysteria that characterizes new motherhood.

"Into the Night" is about a man and a woman who meet at a reception, and have sex--and afterward, the woman debates leaving before he wakes, leaving the experience unadulterated; a perfect thing.

I also particularly enjoyed "The Way to Behave". In the ironic opening sentence, the narrator says, "Sisterhood, it's just a wonderful thing," and then goes on to tell the story of meeting her husband's mistress and taking revenge. I found this by turns biting, funny, mean and satisfying.

I agree with the copy on the back of the book that says that the stories are about power and powerlessness. The power Baines writes about is the power in regular, everyday relationships. She writes about the power struggles that occur during domestic disturbances. The stories are about the power struggles that happen in love relationships, relationships between parents and children, especially when these relationships are broken.

Some of the most powerful of the stories are the ones told from a child's eye view. And all of these stories pushed many of my emotional buttons, especially the stories about children who feel abandoned by parents who are separated or just emotionally distant.

Overall, I really enjoyed this writer's voice. Every story is meticulously crafted, and I loved how the stories are told with such a compact grace. Baines takes life's mundane moments and invests them with meaning, power, and a sort of magic. I also loved how the stories all made me feel something. I am not someone who cries while reading, but I definitely wiped away a few tears while reading some of these stories. There is an emotional honesty to them that is really raw and intense, and I found them very affecting.

I was really impressed with Baines, and how she gets to the heart of the matter. I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.


Mary Kontrary said...

Good review. You made me put this on my TBR list. :)

Literary Feline said...

This does sound like a wonderful collection of stories. Moving and thought provoking. Onto the wish list it goes. Thanks for your great review and for bringing it to my attention.

Gentle Reader said...

Mary K.--Thanks! It was a really provocative collection, and very entertaining.

Literary feline--You're welcome, and it was both moving and thought provoking.

litlove said...

Wow - this sounds amazing and definitely one I will add to the list. The name Elizabeth Baines sounds oddly familiar; I'll have to see what else she has written. Thank you for the wonderful review, Gentle Reader!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you so much, Gentle Reader, for such a wonderful review. I really can't tell you how it feels to have someone understand and appreciate one's work in this way! And I'm so grateful for the care and thoughtfulness with which you have read the stories.

Litlove: Yes, I am odd, and I suppose a little familiar!!! There are two novels of mine, The Birth Machine and Body Cuts. (Body Cuts is out of print available from some online stores including Amazon). (And if you are in the UK, I'm quite well known as a rdio playwright). A new novel, Too Many Magpies, will come from Salt in October.

Gentle Reader said...

Litlove--I'd like to hear what you think of these stories, as I was haunted by some of the mother-child stuff in her book.

Ms. Baines--Thank you for your kind words, and for your wonderful stories! And I am looking forward to reading your novel when it comes out in the fall!

Jeane said...

I'm usually not crazy about short stories, but you've made this sound so compelling I think I'm going to have to add it to my TBR.

Gentle Reader said...

Jeane--I usually like short stories best when the collection has a theme. I really enjoyed this writer's style, and intensity.

Jo said...

Oh dear. Another one for the list. I'm trying to read more short stories this year and you make this sound brilliant.

Lisa said...

Great review. I do love reading about the interior motivations and emotions of people. I like to find out what makes them tick, so to speak. This sounds like a great collection, and this is a new author for me.

Gentle Reader said...

Jo--Lol, I know how you feel about that list getting longer and longer!

Lisa--Yes, this is definitely a writer who delves into the psyche--I love that, too!