Strange Horizons, March 5, 2012

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Strange Horizons, March 5, 2012

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by Claire Humphrey

[Editor’s note: There was no story for February 27, 2012. This story follows the February 20th offering.]

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by relative newcomer Claire Humphrey is a tale of dualisms, halves, binary oppositions, movements, and contradictions – some of them intentional but not, I suspect, all. It combines strengths and weaknesses, artistry and artifice, leaving me unsure what kind of a review to give it.

From the start, I didn’t like the story much – it opens in the extremely awkward and difficult-to-sustain second person, as the narrator addresses the specific person to whom the story (a letter) is addressed. The prologue is overwritten and stilted and just rings false – it’s so hard to believe such writing in a letter, even this one. But most importantly, it’s too long. None of the opening section is necessary except the final line.

After the meandering preface, “Nightfall in the Scent Garden” tells the story of how a childhood friendship leads two girls into a fantastical encounter and betrayal. As young teenagers, perhaps, the friends (whose real names are never mentioned) encounter a mystical queen in the garden of an art gallery. The narrator bargains with the queen, preventing her from taking her friend – her love – into the queen’s mystical realm. While much of the story here is marred by uneven pacing and overwrought prose, it also contains gems of fine writing, such as the description of a father as “a cigar box filled with yellow Polaroids.”As the story gradually shifts into the present, and the narration shifts from primarily second to first person, it becomes stronger and stronger, however. The girls grow up, estranged and disappointed in the lives they have – are forced – to live after the watershed encounter that kept them both in the same world. Same world, different planets, as the old Far Side cartoon declared, and in this story that dichotomy is heartbreakingly true. The girls grow into women who have each lost their secret dreams, but only one is explicitly conscious of that loss, and of how she engineered it. The less-forced writing in this stage of the story allows the pathos to bloom and reminds me of Deborah Coates’s excellent 1998 short story “The Queen of Mars.”

Fortunately for writer and reader (and reviewer), the ending of this story is far stronger than the beginning, and emotional resonance is strong and long-lasting: longer-lasting than the misgivings I had at the start. A come-from-behind victory may not build as much confidence for the winning team as a blowout, but it’s frequently more satisfying to watch.