“Because one half of me is my mother, I know she too would stand at the edge,” the narrator of “Climbing Mt. Sinai” thinks, as she gazes up at the fabled mountain. Across her debut collection of stories, Above Discovery, Jennifer Falkner explores the lives of characters balancing their desires, their need to survive, and the influence of a powerful voice in their heads – be it their own, or that of a late mother, a lover, travel companion, or employer. Teetering between literary and historical fiction, Falkner’s stories move effortlessly between centuries and settings, shifting from the precipice of Mt. Sinai in the present day to 19th-century Canada, ancient Greece, and contemporary Wales. They each explore how the most intimate power dynamics are influenced by broad historical circumstances.
The (almost) titular story is set during the Klondike gold rush. Alma and her brother Jack are trying to make it through the cruel Yukon winter, with no luck and dwindling rations. Knowing that Jack is her only chance for survival, Alma is forced to ignore a series of betrayals. Written as diary entries, “Nineteen Above Discovery” is a portrait of what Alma cannot do. She writes: “There is an argument brewing in our cabin. It’s just been sitting there for weeks, but now it’s inflating like a balloon.” In the claustrophobic, freezing encampment death looms large. Its proximity forces her, as with Falkner’s other characters, to suppress her instincts and needs for the sake of survival.
Throughout the collection, Falkner focuses on characters in extreme emotional and physical situations. In “Columbina,” a marionette becomes the outlet for a former ballerina’s creativity, discipline, and obsessive personality. When her mother dies, it becomes a vessel for her grief, and catalyzes the end of her romantic relationship. “The Anchoress” is structured around the daily prayers of a religious recluse, who, well-adapted to both isolation and sacrifice, experiences the spread of the bubonic plague across Europe through the squint and door of her cell. In the final story, “The Stone-Cutter’s Masterpiece,” Falkner reflects on the gravity of what it means to be rendered. A stonemason, whose work has been reduced to the banal and utilitarian, is commissioned by a woman whose body is slowly turning to rock. She asks him to carve her back into herself. The story explores not only his failure to do so, but exposes the fraught relationship between artist and subject, self and body, and the slippage between the perceived and the portrayed. Here, extremity takes on a double meaning: both characters are brought, by way of their physical shortcomings, to their emotional, existential limits.
Falkner’s stories are dark, transportive, and intimately detailed character studies. Her expansive interest in history is apparent, ingrained in the minutiae of each fiction. In a standout story, “Nestor’s Dream,” a historian travelling through Greece with his chronically ill servant reflects on his vocation: “It isn’t nostalgia that prompts me to write, as some have claimed. This isn’t a simple celebration of the past in the face of a present in decline. No! It’s a revolt against the strictures of the present.” This narrator reflects an idea that is at the heart of Falkner’s work: in looking backward, the constraints of the past are unexpectedly and undeniably revealed as intertwined with those of the present. Falkner takes readers to the edge of the real and the historical, and brings them to a mythic place where the past slides into the present, death slides into life, and the inexplicable sometimes takes hold of the real. Above Discovery is an exciting short fiction debut.
Correction, May 4: The review has been amended to delete an incorrect reference to the acquisition of the work at Invisible Publishing.