Charlotte Holmes writes short stories that feel like imagist poetry, displaying a powerful ability to crystallize a moment in the beautiful landscape of human experience.
“The Grass Labyrinth” is a sequential exploration of lived pain that begins with Henry Tillman and moves through his relationships with women until it begins again with his son, Ben. Holmes’ aesthetic revels in the quiet moments between people: the expressions, the tensions, things unspoken and things felt under the surface in their everyday lives.
Each story is told with unique voices, but they are all bound together by Henry and the effect he has had on multiple lives.
Henry is the protagonist and primary speaker in only one story, “Coast,” which sets up every other story. In “Coast,” Henry and Lisa are visiting the South Carolina beach cottage Henry inherited from his great aunt Lou.
Henry, an artist, meditates on Agnes Landowska and their past affair, while Lisa, his wife, is angry that Henry had prepared Thanksgiving dinner without her. Lisa and Henry met as freshmen in college and stayed together after she had an abortion. Since the affair, their relationship has been plagued by petty arguments, and Agnes, a mysterious and strong woman, continues to haunt Henry’s memory.
In “Songs Without Words,” Lisa’s perspective takes the spotlight. She walks to the dunes that Thanksgiving day after fighting with Henry, but her mind wanders back to their home in Philadelphia and the baby she has recently lost.
Her doctor has told her it is quite “ordinary” to lose a baby in the way that she had, but Lisa thinks of her abortion and thinks God had taken “an eye for an eye; a child for a child.” If her pain is ordinary, she is still “quite unreasonably, selfishly, heartbroken” when out with friends, none of whom seems to understand.
Lisa’s story is cerebral and poetic, a force of heavy unspoken thoughts that ultimately display the loneliness and power of grief.
The next story skips ahead in time to Kerry, Henry’s second wife. At this point, Henry is two months deceased. He had stayed with Lisa for 20 years and they had a son, Ben; Kerry and Henry have a daughter, Emma.
Kerry and Lisa meet at Henry’s funeral, each going through her own pain. Kerry observes of Lisa: “I saw her heart had broken, healed, and broken again by Henry’s passing. As I stood beside her, I thought I knew nothing about love.”
In “After,” we return to Agnes, the woman who fell deeply in love with Henry while he was married to Lisa. She speaks of the pain of the abrupt end to their relationship and of Kira, the daughter Henry never knew he had. Ben calls Agnes after Henry’s death to tell her about a letter Henry wanted her to have after he died.
In “Agnes Landowska: Her Life and Art,” Holmes presents a piercing series of small glimpses, two to three paragraphs at most, that display images of Agnes’ life.
In the remaining short stories, “Taken,” “Erratics,” “The Grass Labyrinth” and “Provenance,” Ben emerges as the primary character. He discusses his own relationships and how they began or fell apart and how his father continues to influence him. Ben returns to Kerry when his father dies to sort through Henry’s papers and finds new love, new mysteries waiting in his old home.
Holmes’ stunning and beautiful series of short stories is a study in the ways a human heart can hurt, but ultimately proposes hope in the darkness, beauty from ashes. The voices unify over the ways in how one person, Henry, has moved them all.
Katie Conely is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s master of arts in English literature program.
“The Grass Labyrinth,” by Charlotte Holmes (170 pages; BkMk Press at the University of Missouri- Kansas City; $15.95)