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The Rose in Twelve Petals and other Stories
Theodora Goss
Small Beer Press, 60 pages

The Rose in Twelve Petals and other Stories
Theodora Goss
Theodora Goss' stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Alchemy, Fantastic Metropolis, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Her story "The Rose in Twelve Petals," a Nebula nominee, was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

After completing a J.D. at Harvard Law School, she worked for several years at law firms in New York and Boston. She returned to school to complete an M.A. in English literature at Boston University, where she is currently working on her Ph.D. Theodora Goss was born in Hungary, and lived in Italy and Belgium before her family moved to the United States. She lives in Boston with her husband Kendrick, a scientist and artist, and their daughter, Ophelia, in an apartment filled with books and cats.

Theodora Goss Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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This chapbook, exquisitely produced, illustrated by Charles Vess, costs a modest six bucks. There are very few ways to better spend six smackeroos. Here's my problem: how to talk about Theodora Goss's writing without sounding trite, or making her sound dull.

We've all seen -- far too often, probably -- refs to "lyrical" writing, "crystalline," blah blah. Lyrical in particular has spread like an oil slick over the Sea of Reviews, too often meaning twee, or full of cloying emotional cliché. At worst, lyrical has become a head-pat for female writers.

Then, those high-kicks of hyperbole sometimes translate out into readers' minds as the equivalent of "bor-ring." How many of us have been tricked into reading, or listening, or viewing a work of art trumpeted as lyrical (and of course important, now there's another of Those Words) that, however earnest, we secretly find depressing in a sort of navel-loathing way, maybe a tad too preachy about All The Right Things, making us, or me at least, wish I were relaxing in front of the tube, watching Jon Stewart?

So how to characterize Goss's writing? There is not a single weak or wasted word here, no labored or trite image. Goss's prose calls to my mind the Chinese feng shui, a state of harmony, of balance, between life and art. The prose evokes feng shui, but the stories themselves knock the mind and spirit askew. It's precisely that tension between balance and imbalance, the mental kinetics that send my mind running, that makes Goss so interesting.

"The Rose in Twelve Petals" is one of the best short stories I've read in forty years of indefatigable book-burrowing. For literary deconstruction you'll have to hunt down John Clute or Judith Berman to give you the skinny; my brain works in visuals, and I haven't any education in literary theory, so all I can tell you is that every time I reread it I marvel at how the structure, though advancing through time, brings you round and round to the center of the story. Just like the rose of the title -- the rose of the kingdom of Britannia. There are twelve sections here, sometimes firmly within a point of view, and sometimes the narrator steps back and talks to you directly. We recognize the story from the outset -- "Sleeping Beauty" -- but this time we begin from the point-of-view of the witch. In the historical and geographical references we recognize familiar names and places, but none of them are quite like the England of then, of now. And so we reach the center, the ancient tower, the princess's bower covered in drifting roses, and though the story as told in our familiar world always ends pretty much the same, in Britannia we do not know at all what to expect.

He suddenly understood why Marie de la Roche had compared seashells to madness.
"Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold" begins with Berkowitz, a professor of literature, on an unknown beach as the sun rises. This story is divided into six parts, each with a thematic line. Berkowitz soon meets the French painter Eugène Valentin -- who was poisoned by his mistress, Céline la Creole. They are joined by a woman whose skin is metallic, who speaks only in Sign. Berkowitz swiftly becomes fretful and Valentin amorous as they encounter weird beings amid an ever-wierder landscape, some of it beautiful, some unpleasantly surreal. Berkowitz looked closely and realized, with distaste, that the petals on the roses were pink tongues.

Berkowitz fretfully thinks back over his life: on the verge of a tenure decision he is afraid he will not get; Helen who recently left him; his anxious childhood as an awkward nerd burdened with the first name Alastair. His perhaps misguided life, studying the fragmentary writings of a visionary runaway nun named Marie de la Roche who lived on the cliffs beside the sea, writing poems on bits of her habit that she would tear off and fling into the sea until she finally flung herself after them.

Berkowitz does not know if he's dreaming, he's gone insane, or if he's really somehow dead or not-quite-dead. He lingers, asking questions; his attempt to impose the rational world on his surroundings simply makes him more anxious. He finally stands agonizing on the Threshold, knowing he has one chance to either return or go on. Still agonizing, he's told that Marie said Faith, like a seagull hanging in the air, -- and stepped right through. Faith or insanity? Dream or real? Surreal? He still doesn't know, but has to make his choice.

"The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" is written from the point-of-view of Peter, who expects to die at any time. He reminisces about a lover name Ilona, met when she was a young, plump, idealistic peasant girl. Interspersed are facts about Sorrow, "a mythical city generally located in northern Siberia, said to have been visited by Marco Polo."

The story shifts back and forth between Sorrow and Ilona. We experience the inevitability of what happens to young idealists from the country who reach the city and universities and politics, what happens when art and aesthetics weave together with revolution.

"Lily, With Clouds" stays firmly in the point-of-view of the practical sister Eleanor, whose family "had always been horsy. The men had ridden hard, shot straight, and drunk whiskey. Their women had ruled the social world of Ashton, North Carolina." From the diminished modern version of this life, Eleanor is here to see her sister Lily, who ran away years ago to New York City. No word or sign since, until Eleanor got a brief message that Lily is dying, and she's coming home -- not to Eleanor's spacious house, but to a rundown shack, and Eleanor, exasperated, feels that everyone in their social set will blame her. We find out about Lily's life, her husband who died, his art, and the woman he'd taken as a mistress. Eleanor begins to see that not one of these fit into the convenient slots usually assigned to the labels husband, wife, mistress. Art.

The last story is "Her Mother's Ghosts" which once again concerns an Ilona, remembered from schooldays by the narrator. It's a very brief story, mostly a series of sketches in the form of memories, some of Ilona, some of the narrator; the keelson to this story is the powerful weight of memory, the hull the associations that come of displacement from war-poisoned parts of the world, the sky-scraping sails the consequences of being on the eddy of great events, causing an endless rocking series of what ifs.

Following is a series of poems. I'm far too unqualified to attempt reviewing poetry: like the Friday-night diner at the corner café I know what I like, but I can't begin to describe how it's cooked. Goss's imagery, her fine ear for the rhythm of language, seems especially suited to poetry.

I'd love to quote one in its entirely, leaving the poems to speak for themselves without my smudgy fingerprints all over them, but I fear to trespass against the honor system of fair use. So let me leave the reader with this single stanza from "Helen of Sparta," taken from the middle and see if it lingers in your mind, beckoning to you to discover the rest:

Rags that resemble antique linen,
Hums and mutters and claws at her face,
Browned and withered, with white hair streaming
And a kind of grace.
Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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