Ursula Pflug, Down From. Snuggly Books, 2018. Pp. 96. ISBN 978-1-943813-57-5. $10.14.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
The unreliable viewpoint character (not quite narrator, as most of this story is told in the third person) is Sandrine, who has just come down from a spiritual “mountain” of special knowledge, but having forgotten everything from the trip, and of her life before it—to the extent that when she meets one of her oldest friends on the return journey, she doesn’t recognise him. This is the first of the stilted and hard-to-swallow conversations: it must be just as much so for both characters as for the reader, of course. As memories start to return, Sandrine (who sometimes mockingly refers to herself as “Sardine”) reunites with but continues to misname her husband (Randy or Mike or Frank or River or Alexander or Dmitri or Rainer…) and children (one of whom may or may not be missing). In fact almost all of the secondary characters have this nebulous, translucent, unreal and unstable quality, as if Sandrine’s barely remembering them hides them from us, the reader, as well. The secret of the “mountain” is never revealed, and in fact drifts out of the story quite quickly, except for the sneaking suspicion that Sandrine may actually come down from it into a slightly different reality every time she returns (as the reality of this story is a world barely perceptibly off-kilter to our own—there are no cellphones, for instance).
This whole story plays with concepts of magic and reality: features such as the invisible mountain, mind-reading, parallel worlds and witchcraft are—in fabulist fashion—taken for granted by the characters, shaking the reader’s temptation to interpret these as symptoms of (or metaphors for) Sandrine’s amnesia and confusion. In the second half of the book, the narrative throws a fairly major viewpoint shift at us; it’s a credit to the subtlety of the writing that this is more obvious in retrospect than it is in medias res. The latter part of the novella then feels more impactful, with less of the uncertainty and artisanal awkwardness of the opening scenes, as Sandrine reconnects with her best friend Vienna (who briefly becomes the first person narrator), and the context and tone of the story both shift fairly drastically. Although most of the mysteries the story opens with are never fully explained, and new mysteries both practical and metaphysical appear, the story ends with a satisfying—albeit intriguing—dénouement.
As with many semi-realist/fabulist stories, Down From is not in any sense a narrative with a traditional arc, quest, character development or easily relatable characters, but none of these is the point of the story. It is full of risky topoi: characters waking from dreams, expository dialogue, stories within stories, but in every case the craft carries it through. This is a very poetic book, full of ekphrasis (one of my favourite images is Vienna’s twig-and-garbage-string spider webs), extended parable, ghosts of past, future or parallel lives, and the odd piece of beautiful nonsense. It is very hard to write this review in a way that would make me pick up this book, but it is a wonderful, and short, read, so if I haven’t managed to put you off yet, then I sincerely recommend it!