To the Volcano, and other stories by Elleke Boehmer

—Reviewed by Mikiko Fukuda—

Transnationalism and tourism have allowed people greater freedom of movement—both to travel and emigrate. Elleke Boehmer explores these forms of movement in her short story collection, To the Volcano, and other stories (Myriad Editions).

To the Volcano book cover featuring multi-coloured ash cloud

The first short story, ‘The Child in the Photograph’, sets the tone of the collection by describing how emigration can impact individuals.

Furthermore, the story establishes the various differences between the southern and northern hemispheres, in this case the cultures and ideologies of the protagonist’s homeland—an unnamed African country—and England respectively.

Luanda, the protagonist, moves to England to pursue her academic career. Although her excitement is infectious, she’s concerned about how other people have reacted to her acceptance to the school. While speaking on the phone with her mother, Luanda admits:

“‘Can hardly believe it, being here, […] The other students can’t believe it either’

‘So you’re educating them. No matter how ancient and clever, they have something to learn’”, her mother responds.

Readers witness Luanda’s enthusiasm quickly wane as she discovers that instead of being educated, she is educating her colleagues and peers about countries in Africa:

“[Luanda] presents a paper to the Masters class on the insensitivity of inequality coefficients as a measure of water scarcity in African countries with low annual rainfall. It’s tiring just to outline the topic.”

After she presents her paper, her tutor requests a copy of it as, “There are one or two aspects he’d like to reflect upon further.” Even her classmate confesses that he, “Never thought about [the topic] enough.” Luanda’s experiences in England are so exhausting and unenlightening that she returns home at the end of first term.

The psychological disconnection between the northern and southern hemispheres isn’t only apparent in ‘The Child in the Photograph,’ it is also integral to the plot in ‘South, North’. However, in ‘South, North’ dissonance is manifested in the protagonist’s romanticism of Paris which overshadows the practicalities of travel.

A first-time traveller from Australia, she arms herself with a basic understanding of French, Parisian street maps and French literature. However, this ingénue is unprepared for her journey and in her idealisation of Paris, overlooks the threats to young, female tourists who are travelling alone.

What the characters expose in ‘The Child in the Photograph’, ‘South, North’ and ‘To the Volcano’ is the gap between the perceptions and realities of emigration and travel: the characters highlight how travelling—especially for experiential purposes—doesn’t always meet people’s expectations, as the tour group in ‘To the Volcano’ discovers during an educational fieldtrip to an extinct volcano. The tour group, comprised of teachers and students, believes the journey will teach them about the history and geography of the area. Although the volcano is described as bewitched and otherworldly, the group embarks on the fieldtrip without trepidation—with the exception of one group member who stresses how exploring the area can impact visitors:

“‘I know that area […] As kids, playing, we always made sure the volcano ridge was behind us, where we couldn’t see it. It weighs on you, you’ll see. It’s a powerful place.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the visit doesn’t go according to plan. One of the lecturers in attendance named Eddie later admits to her partner that, “The weirdest thing was, we all immediately lost each other, the scrubland was so dense. The second you got left behind, you were lost […] We wandered around in circles for hours.” Another lecturer named Bob doesn’t return at the agreed upon time. After Bob is found, he explains that he had a transcendental experience, an experience that changes his life forever as two of his colleagues discuss at the end of the story:

“Something crept into his head that day he slept in the crater and it changed his life. He gave way to it, he let it change him. Who else can say as much?

It changed his life, sure. He lost his job, he lost his mind, he nearly went to jail.”

The discoveries the characters make on the fieldtrip show the ways in which place, regardless of the distance from home, can transform a person in positive and negative ways.

Throughout the short stories ‘Paper Planes’, ‘The Mood that I’m In’ and ‘Synthetic Orange’, place is a location of finality. In ‘Paper Planes’, an elderly woman with Dementia relocates, presumably her last relocation, to a care home. A similar sense of eventuality appears at the end of ‘The Mood that I’m In’ when a woman named Anne has a vivid imaginary conversation Beri, her stepdaughter. Before collapsing, Anne states:

“I dream of taking a cruise—east, north, all over […] I want to dance on deck the way I danced with your father. The stars like a canopy overhead, the equator underfoot. I want to dance while crossing the equator.”

Anne’s admission is ironic since earlier in the story during a lucid conversation she actually has with Beri, Anne states matter-of-factly that, “Everything ends in death, everything.” The sense of death and ending is most prominent in ‘Synthetic Orange’. While travelling on holiday, Gregor buys his girlfriend a bracelet made of synthetic orange material from the life jackets of living migrants. Gregor repeatedly stresses the word living after he gives her the bracelet.

When the girlfriend wears the bracelet, she is flooded with memories of people drowning or almost drowning. She herself is almost pulled underwater by strong currents during a late-night swim.

Later, she ends the relationship, and although Gregor asks for a second chance, she responds: “A drowning person doesn’t get a second chance.” The holiday marks the ending of the couple’s relationship. However, this isn’t the case for all of the characters. For Evelina, the protagonist in ‘Evelina’, the idea of leaving Argentina to relocate to New York in order to be with her fiancé is paralysing. By the end of the story, it’s unclear if she boards the aeroplane.

Regardless of the purpose, these days, people travel more. But travel isn’t for everyone and Elleke Boehmer’s collection To the Volcano, and other stories is a vivid reminder of that.

It’s not travel which changes people but rather place, and that sentiment is echoed in Boehmer’s narratives: whether it’s people’s perceived ideals or the actualities of place, it’s place which is transformative—for better or worse. And in spite of what tourism and emigration advertisements claim, a transformative place doesn’t need to be far from home.

In ‘Powerlifting’, the protagonist Kay can see the parallels between her life and Aimee’s, and Kay only lives on the opposite side of town. Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to live in the moment, we could appreciate the ways in which place informs us about who we are. If we allowed that introspection, then we might also appreciate that no matter where we are in the world, we all experience moments of fear, anger, joy, etc. For our similarities are what make us human, but embracing our differences is what makes us humane.

To find out more about To the Volcano, and other stories, visit the Myriad Editions website.

Elleke Boehmer’s To the Volcano, and other stories was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2020. Sabotage Reviews is covering a number of the indie published titles nominated for the prestigious award, including This Paradise by Ruby CowlingThis Way to Departures by Linda Mannheim, and This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan. The shortlist was announced in September and the winner will be announced on Monday 7 December 2020.

Reviewed by Mikiko FukudaMikiko obtained her MA in English Language and Literature from The University of Victoria in Canada. She has worked as a language and literature instructor at post-secondary institutions in Canada, Japan, Kuwait and Oman. She worked as the Editorial Manager at a publishing firm in Shanghai. She currently works as a freelancer for Oxford University Press.

An avid reader, Mikiko runs a book club and enjoys writing poetry and short stories.

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