Fish + Chocolate = a flawed work of lyrical, literate beauty
By Kate Brown
Kate Brown, on the basis of Fish + Chocolate and her 2010 debut Spider-Moon, is a rising star, and has incredible potential.
But here, with just her second major work, it’s not quite all there yet. She’s stretching herself, and I applaud that, but she reaches just that little too far. Fish + Chocolate, a collection of three short stories, all themed around mothers and children and terrible loss, is a powerful, affecting yet ultimately flawed work.
The opening tale; The Piper Man is the weakest of the three, a modernist retelling of the Pied Piper tale, that simply taps into the fundamental parental fear of the loss of a child using all the inflammatory media hysteria of a paedophile behind every window.
Perhaps Brown is trying to point out the insidious nature of the fear that grips this woman, the primal fear of abduction and loss, but it just comes across as too shrill, too hysterical, too easy to look at the fairytale and scream “paedo”, just like The Daily Mail would have done.
But…. but… but…. when she isn’t concentrating on the Piper and instead looks at the far more complicated relationship of mother and older son, it does so much better. All the complex emotions of a near teen needing and missing his father, little touches of annoyance, frustration, teenage embaressment at mom – Brown expertly handles that. I just wish it all could have been as cultured and subtly done.
(The Piper Man from Fish+Chocolate by Kate Brown, published by SelfMadeHero)
The second story; The Cherry Tree is so much better, a beautiful, mysterious, haunting, and heartbreaking piece with the best storytelling I’ve seen Brown do thus far.
Here, freed from the need to make a point, Brown concentrates instead on telling a beautifully drawn tale of a mother struggling to cope with the competing demands of her daughter’s need for attention and her personal need to create and compose.
It’s beautifully allegorical and the touch of magical-realism in the ending leaves the meaning completely open. You can take many readings from The Cherry Tree, and they’re all heartbreakingly sad – beautifully done.
Brown’s art here is sublime, the whole tale could be completely wordless, since Brown tells so much completely visually. There’s a sequence in the middle of The Cherry Tree which is absolute perfection, following the mother through the house after she finds herself frustrated and blocked at her piano, the music just not coming into her mind as it should.
The mother wanders the house, putting found sounds into sequence, the ticking clock, the shuffling of her own feet, fabric noises as she tidies up. Her hand twitches, tapping a rhythm, suddenly she has something, inspiration strikes, she’s absolutely absorbed in the white heat of creation… only to have her concentration broken …….
(The Cherry Tree from Fish+Chocolate by Kate Brown, published by SelfMadeHero)
Stunning. Simply stunning. The beautiful timing of the ball bursting into her reverie, shattering her ideas… we can all understand and maybe even empathise, and her anger and frustration is understandable.
But then Brown cuts to her daughter’s small, lonely figure, deliberately pushed into the corner, those eyes looking up…. heartbreaking.
The third tale; Matryosha, tackles the difficult and harrowing aftermath of a mother losing her child to (what we assume) is a miscarriage. The title refers to the russian nesting dolls, a simple metaphor for mother and child.
Below are the first couple of pages that powerfully show all the isolation, the guilt, depression, recrimination of this near mother.
What comes next is absolutely brutal; a series of dreams, maybe even hallucinations, shocking in their explicit nature. But Brown isn’t being exploitative here, just grasping this most horrible of losses and what it can mean.
(Matryoshka from Fish+Chocolate by Kate Brown, published by SelfMadeHero)
It’s such a shame that I found The Piper Man such a letdown, because The Cherry Tree and Matryoshka are incredibly powerful, highly emotional tales. Still, two out of three certainly isn’t bad.
And certainly with the two that worked for me, Brown’s attempting, with their deliberately lyrical, almost magical, dreamlike sense of drifting through lives to create something in comic form that’s more akin to poetry than prose. The narrative is subsumed beneath the meaning, with the mood and the emotive feel of the work far more important than the story itself.
Add to this elements of magical-realism, and when it works it’s an intoxicating read with Brown expertly creating a mood of loss, of longing, of regret, of obsession, and at times her visuals are practically heartbreaking. It’s incredibly impressive.