by Sybil Baker
C & R Press
Buy this book
In Sybil Baker’s linked story collection, Talismans, readers simultaneously experience the emotional and geographic territory of Elise’s world as she navigates loss and pursues connection–from girl to woman and from small-town Virginia to Southeast Asia. While each story represents a key moment in Elise’s life, the collection shows her evolution over two decades. Herein lies the beauty of the story cycle form.
In the first story, “Firefly,” we learn of a seminal event that unifies the set of ten stories: Elise unearths a letter and one half of a photograph that features her dead father. “That letter said my father had found love and a good life … Someone had cut the photo, so that half of it was unknown.” The missing half of the photo positions the heroine for a quest. The tangible piece with the “razored edge” provides her with a magic charm, a talisman.
Yet, this discovery is only a whisper within the plot of a riveting story involving another loss. In fact, most of Baker’s stories lead us to events outside the father mystery, showing Elise developing character through the vaguely connected steps she takes. The theme of the absent father is a current, not the river.
It is unusual to find a story collection structured in parts, but Talismans is divided into two. Part one includes four stories that portray Elise’s coming of age in a quiet neighborhood, living with, and eventually parting from, a mother who is lost in the lonely existence of her music. From “Tempo,”
I wore the gingham and floral dresses you sewed, dresses pressed and starched every morning…short dresses vulnerable to a flip, a gust of wind that exposed my underwear, my bare thighs. I wanted pants like the other girls…
Because of your music, you would not know. You would not know the wispy gray fog, always on the periphery…
The mother/daughter stories as a quartet stand united and strong. The last of the four creates a purpose for reading on. “And then she was playing ‘Fur Elise’ over and over, waiting for the rest to come.”
Comprised of six additional stories, Part II depicts Elise in search of the soul of her father’s choices on not-entirely-friendly soil—Southeast Asia, during a time when Americans were merely tolerated for the tourist dollars they brought. With nothing left to lose, she believes in risking each day on the strength of something thin in her pocket. “I tucked my thumb into my shorts pocket and rubbed the half-photograph of my father.” Elise collects and trades talismans along the way. Her grandfather’s World War II pea coat encloses her with a sense of protection on her travels. She leaves it with a lover but takes his address.
Like the book, Elise herself presents as two parts of the same whole. On the one hand, she is sure-footed and wily, plucky and loose. On the other, she regularly slips into the world of an imagined life, an illusory consciousness. This contradictory self creates a sense that, as a woman, she still carries inside the vulnerable child we meet in the first story. From “Talismans,”
Not far outside of Saigon, the minibus veered around another curve… I pressed my fingers to the window and imagined our bus skidding off the road and tumbling to the valley below. With each turn of the bus, the world outside would be a vacation slide show gone awry… I would be the only survivor.
In the final story, “Grape Island,” to a village girl who touched her life,
Elise would write the letters that she had wanted to get from her father, letters that talked about food and weather, but also asked and answered other questions: How are you feeling today? Do you miss your parents? Who do you love at this moment?”
By the end of the collection, Elise’s adventure allows her to become for others what she longed for herself.
Jodi Paloni is crafting a collection of linked stories while pursuing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at Rigmarole.