Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories
(BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013)
Aurelie Sheehan’s Jewelry Box catalogs, in part, the ephemeral treasures associated with love. The book begins its investigation with the eponymous prefatory story about a mother who shows her young daughter the rings and pins she treasures. In showing them off, she recalls the stories linked to them:
Four silver hoops from a long ago wedding cake—she’d been single then, eager to collect fairy tales. A pearl ring her grandmother gave her.
Although the stories in this collection are brief and the idea of the author is mucked with later on in the collection, the book is written as if to disprove the fact that our trinkets are useless—58 stories that coalesce into a study of connection, a whole that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The book’s terse pieces shape-shift into several points of view, including a house and a winsome girl in a hostel. Sometimes dream-like, autobiographical, or poetic, the book resists mere categorization in favor of assembling a vivid collection of instances imbued with nostalgia and import.
In the fourth story, called “Story,” a speaker calls herself Sheehan, gently blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. “Story” also works to narrate the book’s course and ethos by questioning the speaker’s agency:
Some days it seems I have a lot to say, that life holds important and beautiful stories. Other days, life isn’t shaped like that—into stories and whatnot. Some of those other times I feel, tired, lazy, nothing to say, nothing to do, no interest in anything, irritated with myself for not holding to various standards, not thin enough, don’t remember enough dates in history.
She does not give in to the self-aspersion. This self-reflexiveness recurs throughout the book, and through it, she disturbs the idea of a singular lyric self. The idea of knowing dates being the legitimate approach to telling a history is exchanged for messy intimacy, and as she reveals in the rest of the stories, her maniacal, musical, unconventional approach is the most apt way of giving life to this particular love’s composition. The book is distinctively feminine (and feminist) this way.
In some stories she writes someone else’s story with the same level of intimacy as the first person stories. In the story “Pillbox,” an almost poem-like story, a character named Gloria examines her own treasures. Sheehan writes, “Originally given to Gloria by her mother, it was just a small gift accompanying something larger.” This gift is later revealed to contain, not pills, but “emptiness untampered with, sightless eyes open.” The pillbox’s emptiness is paradoxical once made into a story. Gloria’s appearance works like many other stories, a relic or inheritance that helps us understand the primary speaker’s understanding of romantic love.
Although the writing is tight and controlled, the sentences themselves are associative, rhythmic, and complex, which helps in deepening the book’s music. The story “Mascara” is a litany that describes a woman getting ready to see a man. “Motherhood” describes a brood of quail crossing a Tucson street, and its sinuous first sentence demonstrates Sheehan’s masterful control of syntax and style, a trait that makes the writing luminous and limpid: “In the distance, on the dream line of the road, they look not like birds but like the twinkling reflection of sunlight on a lake, the way light hops from place to place.”
The contents of a jewelry box and the attendant memories crystallize into lyric occasions in this excellent new collection by Aurelie Sheehan.