‘Where Oceans Meet’ Heather McQuillan
‘Where Oceans Meet’ is a collection of flash fiction that reflects on family lives, particularly difficult mother daughter relationships. Oceans are a recurring theme but don’t appear in every story. Occasionally, the ocean becomes a metaphor. In the first story, ‘This is How It Begins’, a girl is banned from swimming in the ocean by an abusive father ends on the image of a girl throwing stones into the water, her arms making swimming motions. In the title story, the oceans ‘collide in plumes of give and take.’ Lance and his girlfiend Olivia, find a picnic spot. ‘Olivia goes right, puts the bag down in a sheltered spot but Lance steers left. He demands a view of the sea.’ Later at home Olivia finds, ‘when the vectors of the oceans’ wavefronts meet at an angle, sometimes they cancel each other, sometimes they compound with spectacular results.’
‘At the Border Crossing’ a woman is watched while she apparently picks blackberries which she shows to the border guards. They however delve in and retrieve the messages typed on paper hidden in the bushes she’d collected, the words stained with juice. In ‘Class I Haemorrhage’, Annalise watches the lecturer’s presentation ‘bleed black words whose meanings bleach from her mind.’ Her self-harm is a way of bleeding away the stress of not living up to parental expectations. Another daughter disappoints in ‘Sisters’: Elspeth, who was not playing the piano, is snatched off the piano stool by her mother, who goes ‘outside to weep’. Elspeth’s sister hears ‘her discordant music at the turn of the page’ as Elspeth returns to the piano in their mother’s absence. ‘A Mother Dreams’ of a fatal accident meeting her husband and is disturbed by her daughter interrupting to ask what her mother wished for. Another daughter, lucky to survive birth, watches her mother barter away the family bible with a birth keepsake in order not to have another baby because her husband thinks contraception is against God’s will.
The stories are engaging, the swell and recede of oceans follows the changing nature of relationships and their scenarios credible. The characters, however, felt muted. I didn’t know enough about either Olivia or Lance to appreciate how invested they were in their relationship or why I should care if it ended or not. I didn’t know whether Elspeth’s mother had a specific reason for not wanting her daughter to sit at the piano, whether Elspeth was being difficult and deliberately antagonising her mother or whether the mother was overreacting. The stories were engagingly written and Heather McQuillan has an eye for details that build pictures and scenes but they felt like looking at a horizon seeing storm in the distance and not knowing whether it will reach the observer so the promise of drama doesn’t cohere into a memorable event.