When I first held What Shines From It in my hands, I felt a tiny bit of unease. They say never judge a book by its cover but something about this one had me apprehensive that I’d let myself in for a series of romantic clichés and old-hat tellings of humdrum love stories. At first glance, the floaty black ink illustration of a girl overlaid with some botanicals gives off a distinct YA vibe—nothing wrong with that at all, I’m just not a YA kinda gal.
How deliciously wrong I was!
The debut collection of words from Sara Rauch, What Shines From It, contains eleven carefully placed stories uncovering deeper nuances in how the characters attempt to make sense of love, loss, lust, and longing, in all the various ways these emotions choose to show up in life.
The title itself hints at what is contained. What Shines From It is a line from a poem by Anne Carson, included in the opening pages:
A wound gives off its own light
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it
- Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband
Wounds are a compelling theme throughout, particularly those that people in relationships unwittingly and knowingly inflict on themselves and each other, psychological and physical.
Deftly examining the murky currents of heartbreak and heartache, there’s something almost uncomfortably identifiable within each story. In “Secondhand” we follow the trials of a struggling young couple attempting to build a home together and the unspoken resistance to commitment in the form of purchasing a bed. In “Addition,” the anxieties and potential of motherhood are balanced against an increasing invasion of mice in the couples’ shack of a home. “Kitten” introduces us to a veteran, recently returned home following an untold incident that has left him without part of his leg. His desperate wife finds herself returning to prayer in their crumbling bathroom, as her husband pursues a seemingly hopeless plot to capture an abandoned black kitten in their parking lot.
All three of these stories use the backdrop of economic struggle to add layers to the character’s already complex and challenging circumstances. All find themselves facing a new reality within their relationships with loved ones, hinted at as being previously fractious, and like all brilliant short stories, Rauch offers no easy answers or nicely tied-up endings.
The conundrums of parenthood and infidelity both seem to be looming preoccupations for Rauch, as almost every story deals with one or each of these themes in various ways. By the time I got to “Seal,” the eighth story, I admit I was beginning to feel a little over the subject of motherhood. “Seal” observes a same-sex couple attempting to merge their differing visions for what bringing a child into the world will look like for each of them. Family dynamics and fractured upbringings are subtly explored, alongside the main (pregnant) protagonist’s propensity for drinking too much wine.
A redeeming feature here though is how Rauch explores the nuances of pregnancy within same-sex couples. I haven’t read a lot of LGBTQIA+ literature, but I enjoyed the way Rauch introduces and develops her characters. Across all her stories, the complexities of sexuality are given due diligence, making this an incredibly inclusive and diverse collection. Flipping between first and third-person narration, both male and female characters are provided the space to deliver their stories with lean prose, taking us straight to the heart of their confusion and private, personal demons. It reminded me of stories from another of my favourite short story writers, Kirsty Logan, who has a similar approach but with a delightful play on magic and myth.
Although it is hard to have favourites in a collection this polished, a stand-out for me was “Kintsukuroi.” Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using a lacquer mixed with powdered gold or silver so that the reformed piece becomes something new and beautiful in its own right. Told from the perspective of a ceramicist who uses this technique, we learn about the passionate love affair she is having with a married man. She herself married, there is a lustful purity to the telling of their connection. She leaves notes in their motel room to the cleaning staff, “Call us selfish and dishonourable but nothing has ever felt this pure” and is left unmoved by the reply, “I’m not God, I just clean the rooms.” A nod to the unacknowledged egotism that an affair encompasses more than broken hearts. When the affair is abruptly brought to an end, our narrator feels a line has been cut down her centre, a wound that shines like her kintsukuroi repairs.
All of Rauch’s stories are rich in imagery and metaphor, without relying on overly complicated language or dragged out narration. Familiar ideas and themes are revisited with a refreshingly inclusive take and depth. Rauch smoothly moves from one unique perspective to another, with an envious writing style, creating a wonderful thread that connects her stories while simultaneously giving each its own individual punch.
I’ve been a committed fan of short story collections for years, and for a debut release, this is one of the strongest I’ve come across.
What Shines From It
190 pages. 2020.