Book Bag: ‘Silver Beach’ by Claire Cox; ‘Our Diminishments’ by Robin Amelia Morris

Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2021

Silver Beach by Claire Cox

University of Massachusetts Press

There are dysfunctional families, and there are dysfunctional families that aren’t even together. The latter is the case with the characters in “Silver Beach,” the debut novel by Claire Cox, a Hampshire College graduate who won the 2020 Juniper Prize in Fiction from University of Massachusetts Press, which has published the novel, set partly in Northampton.

Silver Beach is the name of a town and beach outside San Diego, a place full of bitter memories for Mara, her half-sister, Shannon, and their mother, Linda. When Mara was 7, her older sister, Allison, drowned in a riptide off the beach, and the family began to disintegrate. Mara’s father, Charlie, took her to Boston to live with him, and Shannon, the baby of the family but actually the daughter of Linda’s now-vanished boyfriend, stayed with Linda.

Some 25 years later, the once-beautiful Linda has become a hopeless drunk who lives on disability and rent checks her ex-husband sends her. Shannon is a pothead and drinker who still lives at home and works a dead-end job; she’s resentful that she still has to tend to Linda. Mara, who lives in Northampton, is a school librarian, a tightly wound woman who keeps many secrets to herself, including from her lover, Nell; the two are former classmates from Smith College.

When Linda suffers a heart attack and has to be hospitalized, the long-dormant embers of this broken family are stirred up. Shannon’s first impulse is to put Silver Beach in the rear-view window forever; she calls Mara to tell her about the emergency and implores her half-sister to come to California. She lies to Mara that she’s in jail and can’t help Linda herself, then hits the road with a friend.

Mara flies to San Diego, but once arrived she’s undecided whether she’ll actually visit Linda, who’s been moved temporarily to a halfway house after being discharged from the hospital. It’s been years since Mara’s seen her mother, and the memories aren’t good. For instance, she recalls Linda coming to her graduation at Smith and becoming drunker than she’d ever seen her.

“I had three little girls once,” Mara remembers her mother saying that night in the depths of her intoxication. “The first was my favorite. The sea stole her away, just like that. The second one, the smart one, she was too good for me, she ran away. She left me alone. With the third little girl. Who hates me.”

Cox, who lives in New York City and teaches high school English, creates a particularly strong portrait of Mara, a cool, professional woman who’s forced to reassess her life in light of her mother’s breakdown. Even as she recognizes the need to open up to more people, Mara can feel herself being drawn ever closer to a solitary existence: “She can disappear into her own life. She doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

Yet she must also consider her responsibility to Shannon, who desperately needs help and guidance, something she’s never gotten from Linda. Mara must also contend with Shannon’s resentment toward her for seeming to have coasted through life, and she has to confront her own buried memories of Allison’s death. Still more: Mara will be forced to reckon with the fallout from an impulsive decision she makes in San Diego.

Shannon, meantime, must battle with addiction, just as her mother has, while trying to overcome her sense of failure and belief that she’s not smart enough to move beyond the boundaries of her circumscribed life.

How Mara and Shannon negotiate this uncertain terrain, including decisions on what to do about Linda, forms the heart of “Silver Beach,” a novel that one reviewer calls a “stellar, and haunting debut…. Claire Cox inhabits the grief-shadowed lives of her protagonists with lucid precision.”

Our Diminishments: Poems by Robin Amelia Morris

Kelsay Books

Robin Morris, who lives in Amherst, once worked in film and video post-production in New York City before moving to the area to get a master’s in poetry and a Ph.D. in English from UMass Amherst. She now teaches online and has published her poems in journals including “The Comstock Review” and “North American Review.”

Morris has also published a chapbook, “Our Diminishments,” with 26 poems that look at a range of subjects: the natural world (and the threats to it), the legacy of ancestors, the change of seasons and more. There are visions of possible future apocalypse and memories of her mother calling to her cats.

“Towering Graveyard” looks at the cycles of nature by conjuring a familiar image: melting icicles. “Released by sun from their shining isolation, / the icicles outside my window keep slipping. // It’s a shotgun wedding — / They’re forced into melting embrace // as they hit the ground. / Merged, they freeze again.”

“Greylock” is an ode both to the state’s tallest mountain and to the timelessness of nature, its enduring presence amid the decay of so many things built by men and women. The poem’s narrator, on a hike, describes metal “imposters” emerging in the strands of oak and birch, remnants of a defunct ski lift “rusting / beneath peeling green paint on some, / red paint on others.”

These “giant skeletons” remind Morris of her own past and spawn a wish that someday she’ll be part of the rhythms of the natural world: “I hope to follow their example / and merge back into forest, / releasing all ambitions, dreams of swift ascent.”

“There is a vigorous intelligence behind the poems in Robin Morris’s first collection, and piercing revelations,” writes one reviewer of the chapbook. “Morris hitches a 21st-century sense of fragmentation to the twin horses of scientific progress and apocalyptic vision. ... the arrow of fate runs sharply throughout.”