Work often conceals as much as it reveals. This is true whether the work is made by the corporation, at the construction site, in the art studio, or on the page, in writing. The metaphor is the great human hiding place. The poet stores nuts in poems buried in clay pots. Reading is an anthropological dig. A writer often spends as much time working on what to cut or shut out as what to include, to hold within. Readers are seduced by hidden artifacts, by craft and handiwork, also through secrets, gossip, whispers, and shadows. Can the writer trust the reader? Can the reader trust the writer? Writers have the advantage, since they can hide behind the narrator, while the narrator may hide within the story. The narrator may provide a voice-over. There may be other voices.
“A Shadow in Yucatan,” by Philippa Rees, begins with a secret that Stephanie, the protagonist, won’t be able to keep for long. She lives in Florida, calls her mother in Brooklyn, and explains her predicament, asking for help. Abortion is an existential question for the community, but it comes down to an existential question for two, Stephanie and her child. The theme of shame falls with its wet curtain, but Stephanie transcends the community’s efforts to use shame to control her decision. Who or what is the antagonist?
The writing in “A Shadow in Yucatan” is experimental and mesmerizing, experimental because it wrestles simultaneously with both what should be told, when, what kept hidden, and how the story should be told, mesmerizing because the language seems to have been distilled, its poetic form and novella length (divided into two parts and 21 chapters over 109 pages illustrated with 31 black and white photographs) resulting in a potent mixture of page turning pleasure. This is a book the reader falls into. I read the hard copy, having started with an e-edition, and the reading experience is simply different with the hard copy, more satisfying, both the text and the photographs, though there are of course the advantages of e-editions to readers who prefer them. But somehow, with the hard copy in hand, I could better hear the cadence and symmetry of the sentence structure, see the overall layout of the short chapters, hear the strategy of different voices, understand the purpose of the use of italics throughout, appreciate the fall of the black and white photographs, almost all suggesting something hidden as much as something shown.
Stephanie works in a beauty salon, where her story opens and closes in the symmetry of everyday conversation infused with irony; everyone seems to know something someone else does not, but all the knowing is connected. And of course a beauty salon is where people go to prepare a hidden course of action, to prepare hair and face and nails to improve circulation in the community. The tones of sarcasm and irony that shade Part One give way to a slight risk of sentimentalism in Part Two that is quickly washed away by inflexible socio-economic demographic persistence, where the demographic form is the child’s story, a nursery rhyme, told with the cadence of a lullaby interrupted by an inscrutable language only those properly initiated comprehend. Stephanie is a member of several communities throughout the book, and the nonjudgmental Miriam is something of a “smithy” of an angel.
I very much enjoyed reading this patiently crafted book. The form and content (the how and what) are perfectly blended. The writing is clear and concise, the diction carefully wrought, the sentence structure always varied and interesting, the dialog compelling, the text artistically cast and purposefully divided to invite reading. The dominant impression is of a sculpture, because what could have been a huge novel has been pared down to its essential shape, but the novel is still there, at once exposed and hidden.
“A Shadow in Yucatan,” a novella by Philippa Rees, Cover Design by Philippa Rees and Ana Grigoriu, Book Interior by Philippa Rees, First Print Edition 2006. Collabor Art Books.
Note: The slide show at the top of this post contains photos from my collection. These photos are not connected to Philippa’s book except through the theme of something hidden.