Any mother knows that the role often requires a touch of split-personality; we wear many faces, play many different parts. We are teachers, nurturers, disciplinarians, chefs, nurses, wardens, and protectors. These roles combine into one frequently bewildered and exhausted woman whose daily life is a practice in redemption. Liesl Jobson’s short fiction collection Ride the Tortoise provides exquisitely articulated snapshots of some of the many roles that women play and captures both the beauty and sorrow of everyday experiences. Her work takes the seemingly mundane and juxtaposes it with the fantastic, the dramatic, and the tragic. The result is beautifully woven fiction that illustrates domesticity as the motor that keeps life running, constantly humming in the background no matter what is present in the fore.
Jobson is a South African writer best known for her flash fiction, but with Ride the Tortoise she demonstrates a serious talent for longer fiction as well. Her skill still tends to best reveal itself in short clips–a particularly evocative description, a brilliant image, or a wise observation about the human condition–but, when combined, these clips create raw, authentic stories that allow the reader to briefly inhabit someone else’s skin.
Jobson’s skill with succinct and powerful description is in evidence throughout the collection in images so carefully crafted that that they seem to leap off the page. The first lines of Jobson’s title story read, “My left breast is cool and pale. The right is shiny and red, a furious apple.” At this, I wince in sympathy and imagine most women react similarly. The potent picture draws on women’s mutual understandings while pulling us into the atmosphere of the narrative. In this case, she allows us to stand in the shoes of a young mother in a strained marriage trying to cope with the demands of family life. The story twists, morphing with fantasy, and yet still seamlessly sweeps us along until we experience the narrator’s grief and relief as our own.
While many of Jobson’s stories do focus on women’s lives and, specifically, their personal relationships, to say that her fiction has a primary focus on family life is an oversimplification. The stories are too varied, the pieces too intricate, to attempt to classify them according to theme or tone. The characters and voices in her collection are rich and diverse and include domestic workers, athletes, lovers, mothers, teachers, and wives. Yet, despite the remarkable differences in their personalities and situations, Jobson’s characters are unwaveringly honest and relatable.
Like the characters, the structure, form, perspective, and voices in the pieces are equally varied. In some places, Jobson sticks to a more conventional short story form, providing one perspective and central narrative. Other tales are a bit more complex, shifting voices and viewpoints throughout. It is these less conventional narratives that exemplify Jobson’s talent. The story “Signs From the Kitchen,” for example, is a series of shorter narratives about women facing a crossroads in their lives. The piece is divided into subsections with titles like “Speed Bumps Ahead” and “Traffic Circle” that hint at the nature of the section’s content. Yet, while the women’s voices are distinct, each section begins with the narrator at her oven. The oven emphasizes the universal aspects of domestic life and establishes Jobson’s ability to bring shorter tales together in a way that lends insight and significance to the women’s experiences.
Rather than providing different women’s voices, in the story “Postcards from November,” Jobson explores a woman’s life in subsections that permit the reader to view her individual circumstances from various angles. The piece is about the strained relationship between a mother, her evangelical ex-husband, and her 14-year-old daughter. The story itself conveys both the selflessness and the anxious agony of motherhood, but Jobson still manages to interweave her incredible imagery throughout:
As we walk around the park, jacaranda blossoms pop underfoot, pungent explosions that turn to lilac sludge in the rain. Storm clouds have built, high and puffy, the sky black in the south. I’ve forgotten the French word for clouds, for thunder.
Of course, there are numerous layers in “Postcards from November” as in most of Jobson’s work. In the story “Soda Lakes,” the narrator is an athlete struggling to define her feelings for her mentor. The protagonist appears so lonely and isolated by awkwardness and trauma that she spends most of her time browsing the Internet for quick answers to life’s mysteries.
Instead of filing my tax online, I procrastinate, checking the definition of “friend.” For while I am a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard, I cannot be sure she feels the same way. Then again, she is a person who gives assistance, which technically makes her a friend, but a dictionary cannot read body language, cannot intuit gesture, facial expression.
The vulnerability of Jobson’s narrator and the startling and refreshing candor with which she describes secret longings and often embarrassing emotions mark Jobson as one of those rare writers who allows her readers to move with the narrator’s psyche in a stream that is authentic and familiar. Each character’s tragedy or joy feels personal and that much more acute.
Throughout Ride the Tortoise, Jobson interweaves gripping stories with sharp metaphors, poignant observations, and crisp commentary on South African life. Jobson’s work underscores the overwhelming commonalities and vast differences in the way that women from various cultures, backgrounds, and circumstances interact with and comprehend the world. While reflecting on such cultural differences, one of Jobson’s characters states, “My skin is too tight for the new longing that pumps in my veins. A yearning for outrageous possibilities flares then twists in my gut.” These lines move beyond a discussion of cultural extremes and encapsulate something larger about the female experience. They acknowledge that, among the many roles that women play, we have a common, if occasional, craving for “outrageous possibilities.” Jobson recognizes this craving, providing vicarious satisfaction and sorrow in tales that illustrate the enormous disparities in women’s situations and the shared truths that are fundamental to family life. Ultimately, Jobson’s work reminds us that, no matter our current role or immediate challenge, we shape our own outrageous possibilities and opportunities for redemption.