Holly Phillips is a brilliant prose stylist, and it shows in her first collection of short stories, In the Palace of Repose. These stories, all but two of them original to this volume, range from the joyful to the mysterious to the ominous. They are uniformly excellent. Phillips uses words the way a musician uses notes, playing a resonant, fey tune. It is easy to journey with her into the foreign and fantastic worlds she builds, just as one might follow a gentler Pied Piper.
My favorite story involves just such a journey. In “Variations on a Theme,” Berenice is an English woman who plays the piano with great virtuosity. World War I gives her a chance to study in earnest: the men are off fighting, and the music academy must admit women in order to stay open. But Berenice’s professor refuses to believe in her talent, and forbids her to play Chopin, to her despair. But a fellow student, Mr. Green, offers uncommon encouragement.
Nearly a century later, Valentine, a student at the same school (now totally rebuilt with his family’s money) despairs of his own ability to play the flute. His friend, a young woman named Jade, tries to convince him that he has real talent, just as Mr. Green had earlier tried to persuade Berenice.
But, as in several other tales, the plot is not really the most important element of the piece. The story lies in the descriptions of the music, the emotions of the people playing and listening to the music, and the lovely language. Consider this moment:
Berenice slipped into the recital room, took off her coat and hat, and sat down at the piano. She played scales to loosen up her fingers, and the sheer tedium set her dreaming. She imagined the drab room made brilliant by candles, mirrors, gilt. She imagined the chairs crowded with men in tuxedos and women in gowns bright as butterfly wings, their jewels shining like captive stars. She imagined herself in green — no, black — no, brown, rich raisin-colored velvet with gold embroidered on the tight cuffs, so that it glittered with the dancing of her hands. Smiling, she closed her eyes and played.
The empty room swallowed sound, the growing dusk drank it down. After the final note, the piano murmured to itself a moment, then fell silent when she took her foot from the ped[als]. She let her hands rest in her lap, her eyes still closed. For one giddy moment, she heard applause, but it was only the patter of sleet against the window glass. She opened her eyes and was startled by the darkness.
And was startled again when a voice said, “Mistress Red, you should play before kings.”
Anyone who has ever played the piano has imagined this sort of scene, even if she only got as far as “Mr. Frog is Full of Hops,” the piece my 5-year-old self found nearly impossible to master. Holly Phillips writes with such beauty that these scenes — both the imagined scene of the sumptuous concert and the cold rehearsal room — are completely clear in my mind’s eye. You can hear both the Chopin and the sleet. This is excellently done.
Phillips often writes engagingly about the practice of other art forms. In “Summer Ice,” she combines a greening world plagued by global warning with the tale of an artist looking for a way to make her mark. “Pen and Ink” is the story of Cezanne, a girl who tries to find her father in his paintings — literally. Her mother had sold the paintings when her husband left without a word, so Cezanne’s quest is both criminal and dangerous, requiring her to break into homes and galleries. And her own talent is developing:
It was uncanny, the way so much solidity and distance, so much color and depth and light — so much reality — would consent to be bound and anchored by a few lines of black ink on a page. It almost frightened her at times. The hand moved, the pen let down its ink, and the garden was reborn, twinned. A whole new world recreated from the old. A whole timeless age born from a captive moment. The reality of earth and water and growing things snared in all its power and forced to serve —
“You,” someone said, “are your father’s daughter.”
“The Other Grace” shares the inspiration behind Phillips’s first novel, Burning Girl. Teen-aged Grace is walking along a dirt road when suddenly she “awakes,” no longer remembering who she is or where she belongs. She doesn’t even remember what she looks like. How does she return to her family? They are strangers to her. What does she do when her best friend visits? She doesn’t know the girl. How does she make a new life? This is one of the best treatments of amnesia I’ve ever read, taking a cliché and giving it new, awesome life.
“One of the Hungry Ones” is perhaps the most fantastic story in this collection, combining elements of elfin magic with the sad reality of the street. Sadie is a street kid who is invited by three middle-class kids to attend a party, a very special party that begins with a bath and shampoo and moves on to costumes and masks. Somehow the party, with its costumes and masks, allows the teenagers to become the creatures whose clothes and faces they wear — especially the masks, which are somehow freeing and frightening. Why has Sadie been invited to join?
“A Woman’s Bones” is one of those mysterious stories that gives you all the elements and leaves you creating your own stories to continue the tale, to solve the puzzle, to decide whether it is a horror story or a story of culture clash or merely a story of the practice of archeology and translation. “The New Ecology” is about how machines adapt, and how we adapt along with them. “By the Light of Tomorrow’s Sun” is a story of a seacoast town where ships occasionally arrive from another world, and what happens when one man chooses to leave his ship and stay. “In the Palace of Repose” takes many of the tropes of fantasy and gently, delicately and beautifully twists them into something new and astonishing.
In her first novel, Burning Girl, it sometimes seemed that Phillips was so intent on words, their rhythm, their beauty, that she forgot to tell a cohesive story. It was wonderful to read the glorious language, but hard to locate a coherent narrative. Here, the tales are not only told in lovely words, but are lovely stories. Phillips is a writer to watch, and I look forward to whatever she has to offer next.