A Garden Amid Fires: Sincerity and Poetic Sensibility
Kenny Squires
9/30/2007 4:42:19 PM

Been wondering where the sincere writers are? Gladys Swan’s eighth book, A Garden amid Fires [BkMk Press], is a collection of nine short stories dealing in themes of art and artistry, freedom via moving on, and regret. Each story moves effortlessly across the page thanks to the author’s delicate, poetic sensibility, and yet, not once does the writing step into thick, capital “P” poetic description. Swan uses subtlety to move these stories along, and in doing so, the reader is drawn closer to the vivid characters in these wonderful realist stories.

“Seems like most of the people I read about threw away their chances and never got what they wanted [,]” says Arthur, the narrator in “On the Island,” as he reminisces about his teenage crush when she comes back to the island years later, “There was this thing that kept pulling at them, wouldn’t leave them alone, and the ones I read about just moiled around and never seemed to get it right. They made me feel dismal, yet, except for Trudie, they seemed more real than most of the people I knew” (17).

Swan’s graceful style evokes the work of Katherine Anne Porter, especially in “The Death of the Cat,” one of the four stories in the collection that are based around WWII; these are not “period-pieces” so much, as the war itself acts as an underlying setting detail on top of which timeless stories sit. In this five-scene story, Lauren, the young main character, witnesses the height of her parents’ marital strain, as shown through a close third-person narrative:

“‘You’ve got too much lipstick on,’ her father said.

‘Good heavens, Jerome, it’s no more than I usually wear.’

‘And rouge, for God’s sake. You look like a French whore.’

Her mother reddened under the comparison, so that the rouge melted in with the color of her cheeks and little sparkles came to her eyelashes. In a low voice she said, ‘It’s our party,’ she said, ‘Why are you trying to spoil things?’”

Some of the stories feature older characters, characters whose experiences have helped them to realize that sometimes it’s for the best that couples don’t share everything, as is the case in “Women Who Don’t Tell War Stories.” At other moments in the book, these older characters cope with the fretting that goes along with being a parent long after the nest is empty, as the main character, Phoebe, does in “Traveling Light.” However, no character undergoes as affecting a transformation as Claire, the main character in the title story; in the beginning she’s embittered by the changing face of the secluded landscape she grew up on, but with the help of her son, granddaughter, and new neighbors, she begins not only to accept change, but also to embrace it.

A Garden Amid Fires is a clever collection, worthy of a dust-free spot on anyone’s bookshelf. The writing shows the undeniable attention to craft that Gladys Swan is known for, and the stories move with a natural, scenic flow that leaves the reader satisfied at the end of every piece. By the end of the last page, give in to that quiet but unerring impulse—take a deep breath, and read it again. *** A Garden amid Fires is published by BkMk Press. $15.95.


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