Talismans is a series of short stories that, not unlike photos in an album, work together to tell a larger tale. Written by Sybil Baker, an English professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, these brief snapshots center on Elise, the daughter of a church organist and a Vietnam vet, whose early suburban life is a quagmire of sexual experimentation and social unease. With no connecting tissue between them, the stories in Talismans are jarring and powerful, as certain episodes in Elise’s life are thrust to the fore, and the reader is left to fill in the gaps.
Elise is an orphan of sorts. Her father, a war hero, abandoned the family after his daughter’s birth and returned to Southeast Asia, where he eventually committed suicide. Elise’s mother is detached, living apparently only for her church duties and her job teaching piano at a local music store. She has little insight into her daughter’s life. Elise, likewise, considers her mother’s activities trivial, her commitment to them impossible to understand.
Elise goes to college to escape her mundane world. From there she drifts to San Francisco and, after her mother’s death, to Southeast Asia. Wearing a pea coat that belonged to her grandfather, and was treasured by her father, she travels the route her father once took—from Korea to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Along the way, Elise becomes increasingly desperate for a connection: to her late father, her lovers, her fellow travelers, and eventually to the local culture and the land itself. In the end, she comes full-circle: “Soon she would be back in the States, searching for a place where she could cultivate attachments of her own.”
Baker’s language is sharp and evocative, bringing to mind fellow short-story writers Joy Williams and Tobias Wolff. Elise is presented as deeply sensitive but mostly brooding and detached in her dealings with others, particularly boyfriends with whom she’s alternately callous and compliant. “She wants to tell him no, no, I need it a lot more often than that,” Baker writes, “but instead she holds his hand tight, ready to follow him wherever he’ll take her.” If Elise comes off as melodramatic, it’s because her sexual manipulations remain at a middle-school level even as she grows to womanhood.
Talismans combines the descriptive power of short fiction with the narrative swath of a novel, and it should appeal to fans of both. Baker takes her readers on a whirlwind tour of exotic climes, leaving behind whatever’s not needed for the journey. If you can’t run from your problems and you can’t go home again, in the end there’s only one solution: acceptance.
“How do you know when life opens and then folds in, pointing toward the light, a beam that you will float on, the wave that will carry you to your grave?” Baker writes. “You know. You know the difference between desperate longing and accepting the fate that is yours.”