In A Brief History of the Flood, Jean Harfenist tells a coming-of-age story in a series of connected short stories, two literary conventions that have proved the downfall of many a writer. But Harfenist's book is a strong example of what such conventions can do if they are handled correctly; she stays away from the tired clichés of both genres and instead delivers a compelling story with taut writing and all-too-human characters.
Lillian Anderson, from Acorn Lake, MN, is a young girl in a large household headed by an alcoholic father and a manic-depressive mother. The flood faced by the Anderson family is literal and metaphoric: their run-down house and slipshod lifestyle threatens to engulf them at every turn. In a series of stories that follows a linear timeframe, Lillian loses her virginity, watches her parents seek deeper into their respective crises, and learns the ways of boys and girls, men and women, while struggling to find her place in the world.
What could be a depressing tale is redeemed by Lillian's smart narrative, sometimes arch and sometimes heartbreaking but always real. Harfenist has a way with words but doesn't use them in a superficial, "showing off" kind of way. Instead her gift with language is used to enhance Lillian's character and sharpen her observations of life in Acorn Lake, such as when Lillian arrives home to find her mother with another man:
"A thin-lipped, guilty-looking man is sitting at the table, shirt open to show off a mat of brown chest hair that stops suddenly at the base of his naked neck. Happy's resting her black muzzle on his thigh. Labs will go whoring for a pat on the head.
"Mom tightens the belt on Dad's bathrobe. 'Lillian, I'd like you to meet Biff Brookes, a dear old friend of ours from Minnewashka Valley. He dropped by hoping to catch your father at home. Biff, this is my daughter Lillian and this is her friend Irene.'
"No one moves. Mom looks shell-shocked, and this Biff doesn't have the guts to stand up and say hello, but my pal Irene Marlene Patschky is grinning like she just discovered birth control pills.
"There is no coffee.
"Biff can't help himself a minute longer. He looks at Irene's ankles, then up, over every curve, up five feet, eleven inches until his neck is cricked and his jaw is slacked.
"Irene arches her back to bring her sizable chest closer to his face, and squinting her already slitty eyes at him, she says, 'We don't want to interrupt anything. Lillian and I will go outside and lie down in the sun.' She can sweep a room clean of guilt, doesn't matter who owns it or whether they earned it. Usually that's what you want in a friend."
Each story stands on its own, yet together they create a larger work that meshes seamlessly with no weak links. The concept of a novel in stories is a tough one to pull off; it seems there are always a handful of stories that become filler material, but Harfenist has overcome that pitfall by writing stories that all matter and contribute to the larger story. A Brief History of the Flood is an impressive achievement, but what's more important, it's a wonderful book to read.