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Two photographs, and a pea coat passed from her grandfather to her father. That’s all Elise has. In one of the photographs, taken at home, she is a baby and he is swinging her in his arms. He is a “black and white dad, like the ones on the old TV programs.” The other is merely part of a photograph. Half of it has been cut away — Elise does not know by whom nor is she sure what it depicted, although she has her suspicions. What remains is a snapshot of her father standing in front of a thatched house in Thailand, with uncharacteristically long hair.
Elise’s father was a U.S. soldier who served in Vietnam. He returned home, but left again, never to return. He died in Thailand, where he had taken up residence after abandoning Elise and her mother. Elise does not know why her father left them, and only learns details about his life circumstances and death from a classmate who uses the information to taunt her.
Elise understands little more about her mother, who works at a local music store, in addition to serving as the church organist and choir director.
In a series of ten linked short stories, in two parts, author Sybil Baker offers glimpses, related in first and third person, into Elise’s childhood, her relationship with her mother, and her five years traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Elise is lost, but will a series of encounters with strangers lead her to the answers she seeks?
A talisman can be a stone, ring, amulet or charm believed to be imbued with magical or protective powers. But any object that, by its mere presence, exerts power or influence over an individual’s emotions or behavior can serve as a talisman.
Growing up in Virginia, Elise learns the summer before starting kindergarten that her father didn’t die in the war, as her mother has led her to believe. Rather, she hears from the first boy she loves that her father “was a drunk and he suicided.” When Elise asks her mother what “suicided” means, her mother shows her the coat that was passed from her grandfather to her father, as well as her father’s military uniform, and instructs her to tell anyone else who comments about her father that “[a]ll he wanted to do was make his father proud.”
To Elise, her mother was “always music.” They lived in a modest home and her mother sewed clothes for her. The piano — meticulously dusted every day — was the one ostentatious item her mother owned, and it seemed out of place. Her mother used music to escape her own pain of abandonment — it was her talisman — and, in so doing, emotionally abandoned Elise. Her mother tried to give Elise piano lessons, but gave up when she realized that Elise had neither the interest nor aptitude. Years later, after her mother is tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident, Elise returns home from San Francisco to claim her mother’s belongings — including boxes of music, the house with her mother’s beloved piano, and even a children’s musical that her mother had written and apparently planned to stage at church. Elise has no emotional or spiritual connection to any of it, however. After all, although her mother was devoted to church music, and regularly played the organ and directed the choir at church, Elise notes that there “was no Bible in the house, no prayer before meals, no crosses above our wooden twin beds,” even as the house was constantly filled with church music.
What the characters do with their talismans—use them, lose them, destroy them, or give them away, tells a lot about the characters and the decisions they make in their lives.
~ Sybil Baker
Part Two opens with the fifth story. Elise is living in Korea, teaching English. She begins a five-year journey that takes her through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Always carrying the severed photograph and wearing — when weather permits — the pea coat, Elise is intent upon traveling until she runs out of money. As she visits the places her father went more than 20 years earlier, she talks about him with tourists and natives alike, and shows his photograph to merchants, telling anyone who will listen about her father, the soldier. Elise longs to know why her father left her and her mother, opting to live in Thailand where he began a new life and family before drowning.
Having survived sexual flings with boys her own age, as well as an affair with her boss the summer after she graduated from high school, Elise embarks upon a new series of sexual relationships with men she encounters in her travels. One in particular, Young Soo, aka Danny, is a Korean student in her English class. After he drops out of the class, they begin an affair characterized by clandestine meetings in Korean love hotels. Danny tells Elise that she is his first true love, but he cannot marry her because he is obligated to marry a Korean woman and, as the eldest son, live with his parents while working as a salaryman. Danny is resigned to live a life characterized by what Koreans call “han,” the “longing and sadness for something or someone that you can’t have.” Realizing that they have no future together, Elise eventually leaves him as he sleeps, her pea coat thrown over him.
Elise continues meandering through Asia, eventually picking up an opium habit and surviving a near-death experience in the river where her father drowned. She hallucinates, believing that she sees her father in the water as she struggles to reach the surface. Eventually, she decides that she is ready to return to the United States, and writes to Danny to ask that he bring the jacket back to her at the Seoul airport where she has a layover scheduled. The two spend time together and she learns how unhappy and unfulfilled Danny is.
Baker is a gifted writer, in that she has created ten individual works that stand alone, and can be read and appreciated independently of each other. Yet they are a cohesive whole with the theme of Elise’s search to recover from her feelings of abandonment and disconnection, from all the people, places, and things that should have meaning in her life, woven throughout each story. Because she has extensively traveled the regions about which she writes, her descriptions of the people and places are lush and her narration authoritative.
Ironically, Elise has a lifetime habit of doing to the people about whom she cares most deeply — is afraid to care, really — the very same thing that her father did to her and her mother: She abandons them. She abandons her mother by fleeing to establish a new life in San Francisco, as well as the men with whom she engages in a series of sexual relationships while remaining emotionally detached and unattainable. Via her inner dialogue when Baker contributes a first person narrative, we learn of Elise’s incessant desire for escape. She is very intrigued and inquisitive when Danny talks about his desire for freedom, yet Elise never seems to develop any self-awareness of the fact that she perpetuates the same cruelty upon others that has resulted in her living a life bereft of any real emotion or ability to commit — even to a place, if not its people.
Baker’s beautifully crafted stories detail a woman who is emotionally bereft, wandering here and there, hoping that by walking the paths her father walked, seeing the things he likely saw, and speaking aloud about his life, she will somehow make a connection not just to him, but to herself, her own life, and discover the capacity to love and feel connected to those she loves. At the outset, her only connection is to the talismans — the photograph and pea coat — that represent what has been missing from her life, but by the end of the story she has released her hold on both of them, signalling that Elise has grown and, because she is now ready to return to the United States and resume her life here, gained knowledge and insight from her wanderings.
Missing from Baker’s otherwise thought-provoking and moving stories is an overt description of Elise’s spiritual, emotional or psychological awakening. By the end of the last story, Grape Island, it is not clear exactly what Elise’s journey has taught her beyond the fact that she has let loose of her grip on the talismans to which she has clung for most of her life. Perhaps that is a deliberate choice on Baker’s part, designed to give readers the freedom to draw their own conclusions, based upon their individual beliefs, about what lessons Elise will bring home to the United States with her. Talismans is a haunting and memorable series of vignettes that will leave readers thinking about Elise, as well as the places she visits and the persons with whom she interacts, long after reading the final short story in the collection.
Congratulations to Jennifer at Book Noise: The thoughts of a book-loving librarian! Her comment was selected at random (using random.org) and she has won a copy of Talismans! Thank you to all who participated in the giveaway! Did you read author Sybil Baker’s guest post, Writing a Linked Short Story Collection ~ Linked Collections: Best or Worst of Both Worlds? Don’t miss it!
I read Talismans in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Talismans free of charge from the author as part of the WOW! Women on Writing review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”