Many of us who have families and children have moments when we feel entombed by expectations. For me, this feeling is born of a fleeting desire for exodus from the responsibilities of family life. On these occasions, I want to shed all the ways I hold my family’s health or happiness in my hands, and focus fully on my job, on my writing, or simply, on my coffee. Wife, mother, homemaker: these things are not always the primary make-up of me, but that is the expectation that accompanies family life. Charlotte Holmes’ The Grass Labyrinth, a collection of short fiction, is an examination of familial expectations and entanglements as experienced by a group of visual artists and poets who are linked by blood and history. Holmes, a prolific author and essayist, offers a collection of interwoven short stories that spans more than 30 years and explores what happens to family relationships when art overtakes expectation, or when expectation begins to guide art.
At the center of the interconnected stories in The Grass Labyrinth is Henry, an enigmatic artist who both embraces and eschews familial expectation. The collection shows Henry through various lenses, specifically the eyes of his wives, lovers, and children, and he emerges as the character who most shapes the destinies of the others. However, in the story “After,” we are given an alternate understanding of destiny. Here, Holmes’ narrator, a well-established artist who had a brief, but life-altering love affair with Henry, suggests: “Destiny is simply an excuse invented to explain bad choices and missed opportunities.” While a number of Holmes’ stories actually resist this interpretation of destiny, the life experiences of Henry himself, and the stone-in-a-pond impact made by his decisions and his art, ask the reader to examine questions related to choice, chance, and purpose. For the narrator in “After,” Henry’s impact seems driven by the fact that he provides her with a space where love and art co-exist outside of expectation:
With Henry, the separation between my creative life and the rest of my life did not exist. Everywhere I looked, I saw a painting. Every time he touched me, I felt some color stir inside my veins— vermilion, crimson—tasted the possibility of love that fed the creative beast inside each of us, one that wouldn’t crumble under familiarity.
These lines juxtaposing the creative with the domestic and the passionate with the familiar underscore the conflict that defines the character’s experiences in The Grass Labyrinth. Holmes’ powerful prose demands that her reader inhabit these experiences alongside her characters, asking us to bear witness as the hunger to create is reshaped by marriage, parenthood, and the everyday routine of family life. Since such reshaping either feeds or quiets the creative force inside us, Holmes’ collection then asks the reader to consider art and love, familial expectations and creative purpose, as both interdependent and potentially incompatible.
Holmes has a nearly unparalleled ability to take a fictional moment and distill it down to raw feeling, making a character’s experience meld with the reader’s. In “Songs Without Words,” Henry’s first wife mourns a miscarriage, and endeavors to remove herself from her emotions and isolation by speaking in the second person. Yet, in creating a narrator who refuses her own skin, Holmes amplifies the intimacy of her story, wrapping us in the atmosphere of the experience even as it begins:
In the late afternoon when the sky turns gold you leave your husband reading in the house at the edge of the dunes and walk down to the sea, wearing your blue coat, a hat pulled over your hair. The two dogs trot ahead of you, straining against their leashes. The tide’s out. You lunge along the lip of the ocean. Its voice changes according to what it throws itself against, a sound like hot fat in a pan or gravel poured through a cylinder.
As this passage demonstrates, Holmes engages the reader’s senses so completely that it is impossible not to hear the ocean and the heartache in her description. Throughout “Songs Without Words,” the narrator grapples with her own ideas about choice, motherhood, and family expectations. While the surface narrative relates to songs and sounds, things said and unsaid, these considerations are merely the foreground for a significant new understanding of creative purpose. The story ends with the narrator again listening to the ocean and the rain and pronouncing: “They’re the silence you open yourself into, the duet between time and your body.” This line, too, underscores questions about time, chance, purpose and expectations and the shattering emotional aftereffects, both individual and familial, that can arise when creative purpose is denied.
Throughout The Grass Labyrinth, Holmes provides arresting commentary about art and family experience as the instruments of expectation, a legacy that we create for those closest to us, particularly our children. For Henry’s children, his success as an artist and his shortcomings as a father shape their expectations of themselves as artists and people. This is most recognizable in Ben, Henry’s adult son, as he reflects on the impact his father’s art made on others:
When I was in my twenties and people younger than I found out that Henry Tillman was my father, they’d inevitably go into rhapsodies about how one or another of his books had been their childhood favorite, how they could still recite the story by heart . . . and how the illustrations had catapulted them into a magical place where the absurdity of being a child in an adult world seemed in focus for the first time. Then they’d get around to saying, “It must have been amazing to have him as a father.” And when I’d shrug and say, “Yeah, I guess,” they’d inevitably look disappointed—the failure to articulate mine, rather than reflecting in any way on him.
In the imagination of his readers, Henry is the patriarch who helped a generation to reconceptualize and navigate childhood, but for his children, this image only heightens the disconnect between their experience of Henry and his artistic reputation. Of Henry’s three children, Ben has the most traditional relationship with his father, and reveres him, both as an artist and as a man. This is evident in Ben’s struggles with his own art and relationships, and in his attempts to emulate his father’s way of living. However, as the passage suggests, familial expectations and Henry’s success as a husband, as a lover, or as a father, become secondary to his art, even as the other facets of his life feed his artistic accomplishment. The narrative, then, asks the reader to consider the outcome when the competing priorities of life require choices that shape our identities as writers, artists, and parents. Holmes’ collection reminds us that such choices inform experience for our loved ones, and create concurrent ripples of comprehension and misunderstanding, carving out paths that our children are expected to walk.
In the title story of Holmes’ collection, told from Ben’s perspective after Henry’s death, Holmes’ fascination with artistic and familial purpose and the human journey remain in evidence. In this narrative, Ben returns to his childhood home to find his young stepmother building a labyrinth in the backyard. When Ben asks for a justification for the project, likening it to a maze, his father’s new wife states, “A maze is a game, full of trick turns and dead ends. The whole point of going into a maze is finding your way out again. A labyrinth is just a spiral winding inward.” If the labyrinth is the overarching metaphor in Holmes’ collection, she seems to declare that both creating art and being a parent involve journeying inward. While the journey is rife with choices, those that will both shape our destinies and resonate in unknown ways for our families, how we navigate the experience depends on perspective. The stories in The Grass Labyrinth challenge us to examine our own perspective and, perhaps, carve a path where familial contentment and creative satisfaction share the realm of realistic expectation.