By Myfanwy Collins


Engine Books
March 2012

Reviewed by Jason Cook


Family dramas tend to fall flat with me—it's a genre of writing to which I really can't identify. The ties of kinship that give these stories their weight—and which so many writers seem to take for granted—don't have much hold on me: the easiest way to solve problems with a grandparent, aunt, or father is just to stop having a grandparent, aunt, or father. Finding a way to make the influence of shared history palpable is a difficult job for a writer. To close off such easy avenues of escape for characters, is in many ways more difficult than epic experiments or vast zeitgeist novels. 

On the surface, Echolocation, Myfanwy Collins' first novel, has all the makings of a Lifetime movie: Cheri, the prodigal daughter, returns to her tiny hometown in upstate New York, reunited with her estranged sister Geneva by the death of the woman who raised them both, Cheri's aunt, Marie, while Cheri's absent mother, Renee, barrels homeward on a warped trajectory of her own. However, what sets this book apart are the engines that drive the characters and the story: unspoken resentments, desires that never quite reach the surface, regrets, misunderstandings, need, and confusion. 

Collins sprinkles her story with memories, giving weight and emotional charge to seemingly mundane events: cooking a holiday meal, pilgrims on their way to a Canadian cathedral, two sisters strolling through the woods. Cheri, who left town when her foster sister Geneva married her high school boyfriend, returns to navigate an overwhelming landscape of meaning—every word, face, and forest path holding a deeper significance for her she cannot escape. She can't take a step without tripping over wreckage of her family's relationship and reminders of how close they once were.

Collins turns these characters, jewel-like in their unfinished, unperfected depths, and finds a core of humanity in each. Just as no one in Echolocation is blameless, neither is anyone really the villain, either. Rick, the borderline-sociopathic drug addict racing to take back his child so he can sell him, has moments of naïve hope and childlike wonder at the forested landscape, even as he's going through withdrawal, racing northward to steal back a child he plans to sell: "It was then, as the trees encroached on the road, that he could see how beautiful everything was in its coating of ice, as though all the trees and landscape had been turned inside out and coated in silver." Renee, who abandoned Cheri as a child to hang out with bikers in Florida, is just as selfish as everyone suspects, but is also motivated by a dreamer's wanderlust, a need for action her tiny town in upstate New York would never satisfy:

In her dark heart, she knew the truth, though. She hadn't wanted to be a mother anymore. She wanted to be free, to travel without restriction. To not have to care about anyone else but herself—and even then, to not have to care about herself. That was the best of all. 

In every character, Collins finds the hidden fracture lines, the unexpected clarity, and closely guarded weak points. She paints these characters flying past one another with a delicate . 

Underlying every memory are deep wells of feelings and experiences that can't be expressed, for which the characters—and anyone else for that matter—have no words: Geneva's isolation and resentment, Cheri's intense and irrational jealousy of her, and the guilt her attraction to Geneva brings.

Geneva's marriage to Clint, for example, is the source of the rift between her and Cheri. Cheri doesn't especially dislike Clint, but she feels Geneva slipping out of the tight bond they've forged. Near the end of the book, the memory of Clint proposing at their high school graduation intrudes—the moment she decided to leave their little town forever. What she doesn't know, though, is that Geneva hesitated, in front of their assembled classmates, and Clint quietly berated her into accepting. This rupture eventually widens until the two women, standing on either side, can barely see one another.

Aunt Marie's ghost hovers in the background, with each character asking what she would do if she were still alive. While her death precipitates the action of the novel, she haunts the story as an unapproachable myth: a brave woman who waited for a miracle rather than seek treatment for her cancer, a kind soul who raised foster children like her own, and, as we learn in the later pages, a sham.

Partly because of the richly imagined characters and poetic language, I was almost disappointed when things actually started happening. Something about Collins' prose doesn't lend itself well to the mechanics of plot—a little like a fine satin sheet draped over a Rube Goldberg machine. Reading it, I wished the author had trusted in her abilities to bring characters to life, to let them walk around and see what happened. Even if that had amounted to "not much," Echolocation would still have been a great book. Plunker, the town drunk, seemingly exists to steady a hand in the climax, which couldn't have happened without him. With a different ending, he could have been left out, along with one or two other characters who, when compared to the richly-imagined protagonists, seem purely functional and unnecessarily embellished: Plunker is overly emotional and contemplative, although he doesn't need to be, and his "woman" is obviously insane. Their added character traits don't hide the fact that they aren't as deeply envisioned as the primary characters are seem to only exist to move the plot along.

Lyrical as most of the characters are, though, they pale in comparison to the lyricism of Collins' prose. As readers of her short stories already know, this author has a special knack for the unexpected phrase, the image that is surprising but not startling: "She marveled at her own blood as she ran. The leprechaun color of it, granting wishes." That's blood in the snow, that's hysteria, panic, and shock, packed into that one image. Here's another: "She reached her hand out in the direction of the window as if to grab hold of [the bats] and let them pull her out into the sky and share their night with her." This is the soft, allusive language at which Collins excels—hinting rather than telling, implying rather than showing. The landscape comes alive, as real as the characters and the chasms within them of which they can't really speak. There's something misty about this description of Cheri's one-night stands: "…their breath like weapons on her neck, frightened by the fierceness of her grip as she wrapped her arms and legs around them, maybe even wishing she wouldn't let them go." One can almost imagine this prose not having been written at all, but tangled together from saplings and held together with spider-webs. 

Beneath the delicate prose are unshakable bonds linking the characters together—secrets shared and secrets kept, gifts un-given and words that can't be un-said. The futility of trying to rebuild long-lost intimacies when all that's left is resentment and misunderstanding, the mixture of longing for the people each character remembers and contempt for who those people are now gives this family story weight and power. There is no easy way out for anyone in Echolocation as they're bound together by guilt, obligation, greed, and hope. Collins takes what, on its surface, has all the makings of Lifetime movie and creates from it a claustrophobic gothic drama of family secrets and the blind crashing into the blind.