Mystery compounds mystery on the first page of debut novella Green Fuse Burning.
Tiffany Morris begins her fiction with a brief introductory essay for an exhibit at Gallery Autochthone, where the final six paintings – with beguiling titles such as “Un/wound and un/wounding” and “Premonitions in Somnambulism” – created by “urban Mi’kmaw landscape painter” Rita Francis are being displayed.
Not only do the works – discovered at a remote cabin – represent an unexplained stylistic departure, but the young artist herself has vanished. The essay, “Devastation of Light: The Recovered Paintings of Rita Francis,” speculates that the pain, alienation, and intimacy of these paintings reflect the “urgent depths of a woman’s spiritual journey into the swamplands of uncertainty.”
But what inspired the stylistic left turn? And what exactly happened to Rita?
Following each of the subsequent exhibition labels for the six paintings, chapters narrated by Rita trace this artist’s strange and discomfiting excursion into the swampy unknown. In contrast to the gallerists’ overwrought verbiage, Rita’s trek is at once weirder, funnier, darker, and, well, swampier.
Rita is scouting out a “two-cow town” in Nova Scotia as her account begins.
Despite herself, she’s on an artist’s retreat. Her girlfriend Molly forged a grant application to kick-start Rita’s creativity. Prone to YouTube spirals and depressed apathy after her father’s death, Rita agrees to go. Besides, left to her own devices, she will only mope and rage about life’s meaninglessness and cruelty, or otherwise self-destruct while also fretting about climate chaos. “Everything was tainted, including her,” Rita thinks. A change of scenery and an awesome view of a “wet, primal” pond couldn’t hurt, right?
Strange noises in the distance and unsettling locals suggest that the “true solitude” Rita expects might arrive with a few twists.
As outlined by Morris, Rita’s getaway leads her inward and outward. Her inner world roils with anguish, trauma, and loss. More than bereaved, she’s lost: she pivots between sorrowful nullity and cognitive shrieks that Morris renders with a dramatic Gothic flair that’s an acquired taste.
Outside, aside from a menacing, post-Surfacing landscape where even frogs, crows, and rabbits seem to pose threats, there’s “something ancient … beneath the teeming world” – a force or figure whose growing presence intrudes visibly into Rita’s reality. She wonders if she’s hallucinating or hobbled by a mental health crisis. Possibly, a “meth shack” is leaking fumes in the vicinity.
Though Rita acknowledges that a “profound wrongness plagued her,” she also has to admit the local flora and fauna – not to mention a “fiery creature” (a.k.a. Lichen Woman) that reeks of decay – are a few degrees from ordinary. As the narrative accelerates, the “sludge of unbecoming” beckons for Rita.
Read as an allegory of transformation – with some horror-film DNA, twist ending included – Green Fuse Burning suggests the real possibility of psychological change. But this change is arduous and perilous. For Morris, grief, abuse, and trauma require serious medicine – the kind that can as easily kill as cure. Her novella showcases stylish, atmospheric writing as it delves into a shadowy, assaultive wilderness whose feral form belies its restorative properties.