Death Is a Path to New Life in “Palindrome”

It is not easy to write about death. There is a finality to it that draws the life out of a story even before it begins, a dark hole that becomes a struggle for the writer to fill. Elizabeth Genovise meets this challenge with brilliantly crafted stories in Palindrome, using death as a catalyst to self-realization, the first step to a life reimagined.

In this short story collection, the main characters experience the tragic loss of a loved one and are left trying to understand why. In “Into the Fields,” Matthew struggles to comprehend why his older cousin chose him to witness his suicide. In “The Fire Years,” Liz is unable to understand why her former high school crush Len, who was left severely scarred while trying to save his family from a house fire, has invited her into his secret world, a neglected zoo. In “X’s,” Terence, an unemployed, recently evicted man with a drinking problem, can’t figure out why his former friend, the man for whom his late ex-wife left him, has welcomed him into his home. In coping with loss, these characters discover that what they want most is not a tidy resolution, but simply a way forward.

Genovise builds her stories on robust and memorable characterization. Len, the former high school baseball star shunned by his friends after his disfigurement, learns kindness toward the animals he befriends. In “Palindrome,” Michael, a young man fleeing to Canada with his orphaned cousin after being drafted in the early 1970s, is calm, confident and nearly savior-like in how people are drawn to him, yet he is deeply conflicted by the choices he is forced to make. Eva, the college professor in “Meridian” who survived both a car accident that killed her husband and daughter, and a classroom shooting that killed nineteen of her students, discovers the shocking level of malice of which she is capable. 

The vivid settings in Palindrome mirror the bewildering inner worlds the characters inhabit. The neglected zoo Len and Liz visit at night is dark and foreboding, a symbol of captivity but also a place of peace and atonement. The house ritualistically cleaned and reorganized by a recently widowed woman in “The Chaos Drawer” becomes a monument to her late husband, someone she realizes she did not know well when she discovers evidence of his infidelity in file folders and the pockets of his clothing. “She was exactly like a child woken too early from a deep nap,” Genovise writes. “She’d been jolted out of her self-discovery before she was ready, and for months she was possessed by a sense of everything being unfinished.” The woods en route to Canada mirror the labyrinth of emotions that Michael and Kat navigate throughout their journey: fear, loss, insecurity and disloyalty. Yet the setting offers an opportunity to witness the beauty of life, such as a lonely child flying a kite at sunrise. “You have to look for these things,” Michael tells Kat. “You have to pay attention. They don’t come to you on their own.”

The elements also play prominent roles in many of these stories, symbolizing struggle and disruption. Fire is the catalyst of Len’s hermitage and transformation, and the destroyer of the refuge he found. Fire also symbolizes the lack of faith that plagues Kat. “When I see fire, I run,” she says. “I huddle in a ditch, grateful to be untouched, while the people I’m supposed to love pound on windows and scream in agony. It’s who I am. And I prefer God to be just as cowardly and vile.” The waters of the Gulf of Mexico claim the life of an unnamed woman’s son-in-law in “Earthen Vessels,” her daughter’s husband reminding her of the lover she gave up when she was young, a man who later died when a rainstorm loosened a rockslide that crushed him. Rain pours down on the fountain table a man struggles to finish before his son dies, and it follows Michael and Kat from Louisiana to the Canadian border. 

Each character is propelled in some way by loss, or in the case of the father in “Level,” the fear of pending loss as he anticipates his son’s death. The disorientation of loss makes their next steps harder and is resolved only by learning to reconnect with the world. Matthew cannot come to terms with his cousin’s suicide until he helps another at-risk family member start over. Annalee can’t forgive her unfaithful husband until she acknowledges what she gave up when she married him, and what she now has the chance to get back. The unnamed mother in “Earthen Vessels” can’t overcome the guilt of rejecting a now-dead lover until she helps her daughter deal with the loss of her husband. In “Travels with Zippo,” Ron is unable to recover from the survivor’s guilt he feels over the death of the army medic who saved his life until he takes the time to heal his relationship with his children.

Palindrome is a provocative, enjoyable collection, but it is not an easy enjoyment. The reader will struggle with the characters as they face their unspeakable tragedies, finding it as hard as they do to see a path toward resolution. “To perceive our own value is to know the truth of our fragility,” the mother in “Earthen Vessels” realizes. Palindrome’s stories are very much true to life. They show how difficult it can be to forgive oneself for the mistakes one made and how life can become a long series of second chances. Life after loss does not necessarily live up to the expectations the characters create for themselves, their hope to regain what they gave up. As Kat analogizes a new life to crossing a border, she realizes, “On that side, everything is a stand-in for what you once had the guts to want. Over there, forgiveness is not the same as a second chance.” 

By Elizabeth Genovise
Texas Review Press
September 15, 2022