Strange Horizons July 1st & 8th, 2013
“In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” by Sarah Pinsker
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
This and last week’s Strange Horizons have been taken up with the telling of a two-part story by Sarah Pinsker, who, according to her author bio, is apparently something of an indie pop star. If her music is as good as her writing, I’ll be checking her out. “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” is a strong and emotional story, although I’m not certain exactly how it stands in relation to its title.
The story commences with the stroke of elderly George Gordon and follows his wife, Millie, as she copes with his illness and his mental absence. While George is in hospital, not getting better, Millie deals with the grief of her children and grandchildren while remembering her life with George. When they met he was an idealistic and talented young architect employed by the U.S. army, full of vision and energy. In the early 1950s, however, something changed: a secret project for the military left him drained and broken. Never again would he find joy in his work or express his creativity through architecture.
Millie, disturbed by feelings that she wasn’t supportive enough of George during this crisis, determines to get to the bottom of it. It could have something to do with George’s only conscious activity since his stroke: sketching a prison with his one functioning hand while in the hospital. While her children play the “retirement home” card, worrying about her future, Millie delves deep into her past with George. After the incident that ruined George’s working life, he expressed himself only through the construction of the house he shared with Millie and their children, so it is here, with the help of one grandchild, that she searches.
Millie’s quest, and what she learns, is really of secondary importance to the exploration of the emotional attachments of a long-married couple, to their shared and contested dreams, their private memories, ambitions and grief. As a result, the science fictional component of this story is relatively insignificant, even somewhat distracting. I’m also not convinced “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” needed to be as long as it was – it would have been more effective, I think, read in one sitting rather than being broken into two parts. But whether it needed to be as long as it is or not, it still works. It’s a moving and very human story of many nuances.