“To Lay to Rest our Ghosts,” Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s debut collection, is a quiet book, in part a story cycle. It focuses on familial relationships, and many of the characters reappear later in the book, at different points in their lives. Rather than reading like a novel-in-stories, however, these stories work to create a Cubist portrait of grief.
“Patchwork,” the strongest story, explores the complicated bond between sisters and the lasting effects of improprieties. It opens with Sarah’s finding a lock of hair in her grandmother’s cedar chest. Sarah instantly recognizes the hair as belonging to Cecily, her grandmother’s sister and the black sheep of the family. When Sarah asks about Cecily, her grandmother says, “She’s nothing.” Sarah, who has taken it upon herself to write the family stories, sits at the nursing home while her grandmother, the authority, reads them beneath a magnifying glass. Upon finishing the first installment, her grandmother says only: “The Cartwright women did not have big fannies. … We have round fannies.” Notwithstanding her grandmother’s refusal to talk about Cecily, however, Sarah’s curiosity remains, and through spare yet compelling details we learn of Cecily’s attraction to her sister’s husband. And although most of our questions are answered by the end of the story, some ambiguity effectively remains.
The poignant “Fish Eyes in Moonlight” puts the reader in the shoes of a man who is simultaneously enjoying the pleasures of life and preparing to die. He moves into his granddaughter’s house and is given the nursery — or, rather, the room that would have been the nursery had Elsa’s pregnancy remained viable. The room is decorated with pirouetting elephants, fish with sparkling eyes, and sleeping bears. Though he enjoys his meals and conversations with Elsa and her husband enormously, he cannot help but feel that he is “the child they decided to wait to have.”
Not detracting from the treasures are stories that sometimes confuse meaning with sentimentality. “Tags” follows a young narrator whose father does not come home from World War II and ends with her receiving a rubbing of his name from a war memorial. “Growing up Cold” puts too much weight on the narrator’s quest to say goodbye to his dead sister by staging a Japanese-inspired farewell ceremony. In “Geographies of the Heart,” the narrator can’t forgive her sister for not coming to the hospital on the night their grandfather died. The story’s title comes from the line “We’re from the same place, but we have different geographies of the heart,” which some readers will find pretty, others contrived.
Overall, the stories fit together nicely. And despite the at times overly romantic treatment of the material, Summie’s ghosts linger.
Heather A. Slomski is the author of “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons,” winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She lives in Moorhead, Minn.
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts
By: Caitlin Hamilton Summie.
Publisher: Fomite Press, 201 pages, $15.