by Kate Wyer
Cobalt Press, 2015
212 pages, $12.67
Corbina, the isolated heroine of Kate Wyer’s Black Krim, keeps a house too big for her, works at the local arboretum, and raises difficult plants of her own, sometimes selling produce at the farmer’s market. She opens her door to Martin, a bewildered elderly man pacing barefoot circles in the snow outside her window, and thus begins a quiet story about nearly invisible lives.
The relationship seems too neat at first, a simple sharing of animal warmth— fatherless Corbina offering a man at the end of his life the practical comforts he needs. But Brigit, Corbina’s mother, soon enters and forces the emergence of a more complicated world.
Wyer relates these disparate psyches by interweaving their alternating points of view in flash chapters. Brigit, who has hidden everything about Corbina’s father, seeks to prove she is the only parent her daughter needs. Corbina spends every moment with Brigit subtly demonstrating that her mother is very wrong. The two go through the painful motions of family, exchanging carefully timed phone calls and visits, politely and not-too-often accompanying each other to the movies or the grocery store. When Martin appears, Corbina recedes further from Brigit, perhaps seeking the faceless father who fascinates and eludes her, or perhaps seeking to punish her mother for trying (and failing) to be the ideal parent.
The novel dramatic highs and lows, delving instead into day-to-day minutiae, allowing a slow bloom of dramatic tension.
Brigit and Corbina at odds over a misplaced glance:
Mom continues to chew and I realize she hasn’t heard me. I follow her line of sight to the basement steps. A sock, a man’s sock. She is silent in her pride about knowing something, even if she doesn’t know what that something means…
‘Are you finished?’ I ask and pick up her plate. The hard crumb topping she saves for last, still uneaten.
‘I’m no—well.’ She puts her fork down and wipes her lips with a napkin.
I scrape the topping into the trash and then slide the dish into the sink.
Leave this alone, I want to say. Leave it alone. I don’t say anything as I finish my tea, as she adds more milk to lower the temperature of hers. We each remain in this tight circle of restraint.
Corbina and Martin bonding over the sensual courtesy of a home-cooked meal:
I love the ritual of making it, the smell of the carrots, celery, and onions as they simmer in butter and oil. I love pressing each cube of meat onto a towel to rid it of moisture and then browning the meat in a pan. I love how slow cooking fills the house with warmth…
Outside, the snow, again, coming down still stronger. I anticipate the fire at home, the dogs, the man. There will be dinner at the table, not the couch, and with company other than my dogs.
What do you know about me, Corbina? I am an old man you found in your field. I am your stray dog, your secret.
I hear the chopping again and smell the way each vegetable softens, the change of texture and taste. I can smell the celery becoming translucent.
Martin sitting alone in the spare bedroom, wondering what’s appropriate, hoping he hasn’t overstepped or overstayed, ruminating on his secrets:
I click the light out, pull the blanket up to my nose, cover it, and attempt to cover my ears… but the chill remains. It has settled into the damp weight of my body in her guest bed.
I want to sleep. I want to halt the planning and building of a new life. I hear her turning in the bed in the next room.
“I feel shame.
The other day, I woke up and couldn’t remember where I was or why I was sleeping in a bed without my wife. Everything unfamiliar. A gutless feeling, a bad omen. I am not ready for this to be over. I have not yet begun to understand it…
What can I possibly hope to happen? An anonymous life in a house I can’t leave with a woman who is not my wife, my daughter, my girlfriend.
Wyer balances densely set scenes with incremental forward movement, tightly constructing a story that feels like prose poetry. Corbina’s discovery, for instance, that Martin left a wife and family to wander barefoot in a cornfield happens without crashing, dialogue-heavy confrontation. Instead, Corbina pieces Martin’s history together over several weeks, while they build a trusting household routine, so that what might have been dramatized as something divisive becomes something the characters bond over, a tenderly cultivated, tacit secret.
The novel maintains tension by having Martin reveal himself to the reader much earlier on. He has planned his stay at Corbina’s house, and intentionally made himself invisible to his family. We’re left to chew on this worrisome discovery, punctuated by his weird statement, “And still, when I left, I felt like my place in that home had been transient, always transient. My role was to pass through. That’s not to say I didn’t love them.” Meanwhile, Corbina looks the other way, discovering herself through Martin’s household habits. She muses, “Did I know that I was the type of person to get angry about newspapers spread all over the house, that I would come home and straighten them up, fold them back up and add them to the recycling without saying a word? Did I know I would leave notes in the bathroom about not leaving globs of toothpaste in the sink?”
Is this a story about a stalker? Is Corbina opening herself up only to be badly hurt? Or is the story about garden-variety dementia, told through unreliable narration? Which character is most out of touch, and who will break? Black Krim sets up a situation that naturally raises such questions and more, and thankfully veers away from what our anxieties lead us to expect.
The Black Krim, an heirloom variety of tomato prized among certain gardeners and farmer’s market shoppers, exhibits “a riot of movement outward and a celebration of excess. These tomatoes were discarded for a century because of the need for symmetry and neatness was so strong… so much green growing to make so few tomatoes.” This is as close to on-the-nose as Wyer gets, portraying Corbina as the odd one out, eager to grow and bear fruit, but only according to her own puzzling habit. Wyer otherwise prefers understatement, though the reader might want her to go a little farther with resolutions. Corbina never allows herself firm answers about her relationship with Martin—has he brought her closer to understanding her feelings about her own father? Does she define him as a friend? A soul mate? These questions are never clearly broached or answered.
Corbina’s relationship with Brigit offers a clearer trajectory as Black Krim resolves. An impromptu dinner together brings mother and daughter within touching distance, and allows them to actually share an honest thought. It’s a nearly unbelievable moment, considering the characters’ self-imposed remoteness through the rest of the novel, but disarming and lovely, in the wake of Martin’s departure. The mother’s small gesture, and the daughter’s return grace, propose that their relationship may be most effectively cultivated by letting each other be.
Black Krim is an easily digested summer read, despite its thoughtful pacing. Physically, the book is appealing to the eye and hand, trim, compact, and richly designed. A thought-provoking read that examines the ever-changing ways in which compassion affects friendship and family.