Permeable Borders by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Reviewed by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
23 November 2012
According to the Internet Science Fiction Database, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has published over two hundred short stories since 1983. Her new collection, issued by Fairwood Press in 2012, is her fifth. I was more than a little disappointed when, in preparing for this review, I discovered that the previous four are all out of print. You see, I've been following Hoffman's short form work avidly for the last four years, since my first encounter with her fiction in the now defunct online zine Lone Star Stories. I still remember vividly how I was struck by the icy quality and appearance of effortlessness of that story, "Things with the Same Name" (Issue No. 21, June 1, 2007). After reading it I finally caught on to what others, I later discovered, had known for some time (Tim Pratt, for instance, has called Hoffman a genius, and Jay Lake has compared her to Ray Bradbury): here was a writer to watch closely, for she was doing interesting things, and doing them extremely well. Naturally, I wasn’t the only one watching. In 2008 Hoffman won the Nebula Award for her short story "Trophy Wives."
So it's a sad state of affairs that her previous collections are not easily available. And if there's one thing I immediately lamented after opening up Permeable Borders, which gathers material published between 1993 and 2008, plus one new tale, "Anger Management," it was that it contains only sixteen stories.
Editors out there, I implore you: we could really do with a Best Of.
Greediness aside, I applaud the consistently high quality of the selection on hand. The stories are organized into five sections. This scheme seems more playful than programmatic—much like the stories themselves. The very last grouping, titled simply "Home," could be interpreted as segueing into or immediately preceding the very first section, "Finding Home," suggesting that different stories cast thematic light on one another and bind everything into a circle. In fact, in some cases the stories are interconnected explicitly by sharing the same characters. The other section titles are equally allusive but broad: "Fairy Tales," "Finding Each Other," and "Permeable Borders."
That's all fine and well, I hear you muttering, but what are Hoffman's themes, and in what genre(s) does she work?
In short, these are stories of magic, featuring witches (male and female), people who can see the dead, ghosts, angels, the rare poltergeist, and practitioners of more subtle skills such as listening to the secret languages of objects. Many characters in these stories are defined by their search for connection, human or otherwise. I have to admit that as a reader I normally gravitate towards stories that are either more purely SFnal or dark and weird. But despite magic and witches lying at several removes from my ordinary predilections, Hoffman kept me fully engaged at every turn, and surprised me more than once. This is a testament to her fine technique, and the compassion and lack of pretense evident in her writing.
One aspect of these stories that immediately appealed to me was their quietness. "The Wisdom of Disaster," a highlight, begins with perhaps the epitome of outward stillness:
Irene and Naples March sat on the back porch in their natural-branch chairs, close enough to hold hands if they were so inclined. (p. 204)
The last part of this opening sentence hints at the emotional complexity of Irene and Naples's relationship in an admirably economical way. Hoffman is a skilled stylist in this regard, using little to convey much. Later in this same piece, for example, we learn that Irene's teapot is "chipped blue enamel" (p. 207), which suggests a paucity of means, or a nostalgic attachment or resignation to old age; later on Hoffman informs us that "Irene poured water into four fat brown mugs, dropped Lipton tea bags into them" (p. 208).
While the intimacy of Hoffman's opening in this story doesn't ever get crowded out by mounting events, things do speed up (and Irene herself reflects on this near the finale) once an unknown man shows up at the Marches' door with a seemingly injured woman who speaks a very unusual language. The story's ending provides a fantastical expression of something Hoffman has introduced right at the outset, and which appears time and time again throughout the collection: the importance of family and relationships, and the unpredictable, non-linear ways in which these needs can make themselves felt.
"Sourheart," another impeccably wrought story, follows the wanderings of Edmund, a witch who has reached what he thinks of as the third stage of his witch-hood, one defined not by the question of how he can use his gift, but rather the more selfless and abstract inquiry into how his gift can use him. Once again, we are treated to an opening in which nothing noteworthy appears to be happening:
Edmund parked the rattletrap Volvo station wagon beside a narrow road in the Sierra Nevada foothills and turned off the engine. Westering sun reddened the iron-pink earth of the road cut, and the air out his open window smelled of pine. (p. 92)
This descriptive stage-setting not only cues in the almost palpably reflective nature of the narrative, but also anticipates Edmund's profound communion with his surroundings. He is both absolutely centered and without focus, adrift. After following the whisper of "a mixture of strange energies" from a clearing, Edmund inadvertently trespasses on a woman's property, and ends up playing a pivotal role in a life and death struggle. As before, the intensity of events increases quickly but the emotional dimensions remain sharply resolved throughout.
The stillness I've been talking about is perhaps most expertly wielded in a long, remarkable story, "Home for Christmas." It begins with a young homeless girl, Matt, having a conversation with a wallet that has become separated from and longs to be reunited with its owner, one James Plainfield (talk about an unexciting name). Matt, who has the unique ability to see into others' dreamscapes, and who can also exchange thoughts with the things around her, goes on to locate the much older James, and after dinner and a short shopping expedition spends Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with him in his apartment. Hoffman's rendering of Matt and James is nuanced and richly textured. She entrances us so thoroughly with their reality that we unquestioningly accept other far less quotidian occurrences, such as James's kitchen becoming animated. Matt and James are both lonely, and wounded, but Hoffman isn't out to evoke pity. Instead, she allows these two flesh and blood characters to spend time together in a manner that feels completely natural, unhurried. They speak. They exchange opinions. They do mundane things. Inner revelations, rather than outer conflict, subtly move us along. Hoffman's contemplative approach perfectly complements her gift for fun, quirky dialogue to achieve a kind of spellbinding cadence. And out of these exchanges emerge many intriguing ideas, such as the following:
"In a way, ideas and memories are stronger than things you can touch," she said. "For one thing, much more portable. And people can't steal them or destroy them—at least, not very easily."
"I could lose them. I'm always afraid that I'm losing memories. Like a slow leak. Others come along and displace them."
"How many do you need?"
He frowned at her. (p. 136)
Perhaps the story's most profound realization is that it may be possible to reconnect with a long-buried past without losing the present in the process. We are more adaptable, Hoffman seems to suggest, more resilient and capable of replenishment, than we give ourselves credit for.
The word displace in the above excerpt also reflects a recurring preoccupation. Though peripatetic Matt, who reappears in several other stories here gathered, certainly embodies displacement in a literal way, others are afflicted by it also, albeit in more psychological terms. In "Inner Child" Hoffman depicts a harrowing near-rape of two young girlfriends by their testosterone-addled adolescent neighbors, without becoming either melodramatic or preachy (or worse, prurient). A third character by the name of Caleb Danvers, oddly wise beyond his years, observes to Rosalie, one of the aforesaid girls, that "this event has cast you out of the places you've lived all your life, and you can't find a road back" (p. 113). We've already met Edmund, who in "Here We Come A-Wandering," another Christmas Eve story, declares that he follows wherever the spirit leads him. In "Gone to Heaven Shouting," one of two musically themed stories featuring fiddles and granges, Cyrus Locke has been following the threads of musical webs in various communities for years, looking for "his people" (p. 257). In "Key Signature," Zita Wilson's "heart wanted to open, but the scar tissue was too thick" (p. 15); she is estranged from her own emotions. And in the more supernaturally humorous "A Fault Against the Dead" and "The Trouble with the Truth," it is the ghostly dead, to whom Julia is a counselor, who are lost, unable to grasp what keeps them in their ethereal guises until after they pass through Julia and, liberated by this knowledge, find release. In some cases the agents of displacement are abusive mothers; in others, simply coming of age; and in "Switched" and "How I Came to Marry a Herpetologist," which resonated with me a little less due to their heavier borrowing of traditional fairy tale tropes, they take the form of stepmothers and stepsisters, or the curse of speaking in toads and snakes.
Thus exiled, Hoffman's creations often face a difficult choice:
Do you wish to go farther away? Do you wish to return? (p. 272)
But then, that's a choice that we must all make at various times. In some rare cases—as, for instance, with Hoffman's short stories—the answer is easy. We wish to return.