Monday, July 26, 2010

Short-a-Day: Katie Williams's "Bone Hinge"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 67.

"The place where we are joined is a secret place for Hattie and me, especially since everyone always wants to look at it. The skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird's wing does to its body--a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base. We face away from each other, simply two girls standing back to back. When walking somewhere, I let Hattie lead, because then I'm not obliged to wave to anyone or chirp some greeting that will likely not be returned. I trail with perfectly placed backward steps, looking at the world after Hattie has passed it, which makes it a little friendlier somehow."

That's a great premise for a story, but while this bit is compact and full of life (and clever, telling details about the differences in their personalities--forwards-facing, backwards-leaning, half-full/half-empty), there are portions that feel overstuffed (descriptions of the dye-factory, and the magical death of Sylvie's first love, Lester Byttle). There are also portions that feel just romantic enough: for instance, Hattie's suitor, the stuttering-sweet Matthew has a brother as snippy as Sylvie: Toby. And their realism-bound birth, which involves the supernatural appearance of a murder of crows and a series of lightning-caused fires, adds a nice element of otherness to the writing. It sets them apart, through no fault of their own, which makes the potential love--which Hattie embraces and Sylvie chooses to neglect--all the more important. Descriptions of the switch-carrying father are also important, since they show the severity of their life, beyond their forced twinning.

As is becoming a bit of theme for me, the ending stretches too far into the poetic, with Sylvie chasing away the two brothers (during a midnight tryst), the result of which is a permanent fracture between the twins--even though they're still very much wish-boned together. "As I stared into the eyes of my sister, that stranger, the room around me closed in, round and dark and slippery, and the next breath I took was bitter liquid, drawn deep into my lungs." It's as if Williams stepped back from the ending she was thinking--in which their spinal connection is literally severed--and settled for an ambiguous wail of emotions, which doesn't work considering their absence from the rest of the story. It's also difficult in that we don't really have much of a grasp of Hattie; Sylvie's bitterness is clear, but we only catch side-long glimpses of her twin ("I caught the edge of her frown like a fishhook"; "I can see only half of [her expression]: flutter of eye, curve of lip, and slice of cheek"). The story needs to give us both of them, and there's the sense that Williams could have done much more with what is otherwise a brilliant conceit.

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