Walker on Water
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither a criticism, nor the identification of a flaw is that Walker on Water is an unusual book that pushes boundaries, and the readers it would most appeal to are vastly different. This book is for those who like their stories very brief, abstracted, non-linear, without traditional character or plot, and for those to whom fabulism appeals, those who want stories to be strange and magical, something resembling, but far from, fairy tales.
When you look underneath a woman who walks on water, whose husband comes home and takes his brain out of his head, or a woman who collects her husband’s “big juicy apricots,” look past character names like Teacher of Joy, Surrealist’s Daughter, Stone Chunk, and Beautiful Question, Ehin’s stories are predominantly about relationships, mostly that between lovers. Her characters fall in and out of love, back in and out again, ever changing, ever keeping secrets. At times, the connections to tangible, and recognizable aspects of relationships are visible, though even then there is no certain, specific comparison—as in “Cushions,” where the narrator and her husband are literally deaf to each other, and only each other: “I realized that whenever I related my tales to my husband, he was relating his to me at the same time.” But mostly, when the people come into conflict with one another, the parallels to our lives are indistinct.
The repetition with variation of conflict is not necessarily man versus woman, but man and woman struggling within themselves, and it is the outward expression of that struggle that erupts their relationships. Many of the stories open quickly, directly into their odd world, as in the first sentence of “Patterns,” when the narrator tells us “The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well.” These men, all named Jaan, did nothing to deserve her violence—this impossible, animalistic violence. Each of them simply woke her, but in the wakings, no matter the love, or the peacefulness of the situation, there is a suggestion of control, such as when one has made her breakfast and wants to eat it with her before it gets cold. The women of Walker on Water are tensed, so aware of a culture in which men are violent, are cruel and controlling, that they live on the taut edge of fight or flight. So the arm-chewing woman, when her husband came to her, “felt his gigantic, rapidly twitching muscle” and “Rage struck [her] like a thunderbolt.” She did not want to bite his arm off, but taken from sleep, the instinct, the reaction to the dark potentials of intertwined lives, could not be helped.
The characters of these stories bring their pasts, and their secrets, to their relationships. The woman of the story “Walker on Water” only goes on her walks when her husband is not there, just as he only reveals his skull-emptying evenings after they begin living together. In “Gold Key,” another in the apricot collector’s cycle of stories, she admits, “my husband isn’t a particularly curious person and he hasn’t stumbled upon my collection yet. He has his own collections too that are hidden behind all sorts of passwords.” The preservation of secrets is not only to maintain relations, but to stabilize a self, an attempt that often fails. In Walker on Water, the connections between lovers are made and broken, and often again and again, because identities are constantly transforming.
There are a couple sets of story cycles that feature the same character or characters in shifting forms, in new situations. These help along the sense that Ehin’s very brief stories are fairy tales, just glimpses of a legend. Ilmar Lehtpere’s translation is consistent in its odd, casual tone, making the strangeness feel natural, ensuring the tales feel like they’re from from the same collection of legends. “The Surrealist’s Daughter” begins one of these cycles. Throughout it the daughter not only manifests physical transformations—into a black stork or her job as a cabaret dancer where she “was a woman of many faces and many bodies”—but in identity, as when she “adopted another father” and became the Beekeeper’s stepdaughter. Altered identities necessarily alter the relationships those identities are part of. Before the Surrealist’s daughter becomes the Beekeeper’s stepdaughter, the narrator of this cycle drifted from her, attempting to return when she has made her change, only to find that impossible, to find her interested in another—one who suits her new identity.
As the shifts in shade of—or complete changes in—identities begin and end relationships, one of the core themes of Walker on Water, melancholy celebrations, comes into clarity. It is a sad, strange articulation of a part of life sometimes looked over. There are countless books and movies that idealize the single love of one’s life, but Ehin acknowledges that most of us will have multiple loves throughout our lives. Some will end peacefully; others will end in pain. Our partners too will have those many loves, and the weight of secrets that comes with them, so “In the end we all have to swallow the collections of our husbands and wives.”
This is the clearest, most over-arching way the fairy tale, the magical, the bizarre, is made relatable in Walker on Water. The majority of the time, the connection is not so distinct. The stories, in their vagueness, and departure from realism, are open-ended, the breadth of interpretation wide. For some readers, this could be unsatisfying, for others, exactly what is desired. Ehin’s method works better in some stories than others, where the stories are too vague, don’t have any of their own ground to stand on. The most wonderful moments are passages where it is as if language fails Ehin, as if realism could not express these lives, so Ehin is only writing as she must, and our job is to translate them into something familiar, relatable: “A sticky silence flowed into my ears. I poured music into my ears, the voices of friends, the rumble of cars, the ringing of phones and more friend’s voices, but nothing helped. The sticky hot silence wrapped itself around my heart.” In the end, it is a light collection, playful even in its darkness—a short book that manages to be both loveable, and forgettable.