Quaint Magazine

Review: Kristiina Ehin’s "Walker on Water"

July 22, 2014No Comments

 Quaint reader Maya Lowy reviews Estonian writer Kristiina Ehin's Walker on Water, which we were enormously privileged to receive a review copy of, courtesy of Unnamed Press.


The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well.

It is impossible for me to jump into the Baltic lake of Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from the original Estonian) without submerging you, for a minute, in her imagery, freezing and eerie and delightful. Why introduce a book that introduces itself?

 You see, Jaan had a chocolate arm and was the factory’s most expensive attraction.


Seriously. That's some princess hair, right there.

Eighty pages, twenty-four prose poems*, grouped together in sequences. I counted seven sections, organized loosely by theme. There are shifts in speaker, and in degree of analogy, and in heavy-handedness, and of course in story. But even in translation (deftly, dryly handled by Ilmar Lehtpere), Ehin’s voice is consistent: it is so strong I think I’d be able to pick her out in an airport. (Disclaimer: I just google image searched this poet and she looks like a damn princess. I think I might have been expecting a little more crazy eyes.)

I had, in a fraction of a second, shattered our people’s Olympic hopes.

There is something—forgive the pun—charmingly disarming about this kind of technique. Immediately we are plunged into a universe where anything rolls. I like that in a book. If you are giving me this kind of magic I don’t care so much about the realism part.

 Yes, her shoulder had truly blossomed and was pollinating tantalisingly.

Bite-sized chapters, stories which are all surface. Where it is successful, the book is a lake. Reading it is a little like walking on water: you are doing something impossible and it is thrilling.

Where Walker on Water falters is the sections which are more serious, more directly allegorical. Maybe that’s me and my automatic balk against obvious symbols, but sections like this one don't do as much for me:

Life Story turned round and looked angrily into Happiness Formula’s wantonly flashing eyes. …A Life Story has to concentrate on something else, certainly not on happiness and certainly not on a formula.

Even Ehin must admit that this is lacks the strength of sentences like:

Now that I have completely mastered bird language and the grammar I authored is already in its fifteenth printing, I’ve nearly forgotten my apricot collection.

So here’s the thing about this book. Where it works, it works great, and where it doesn’t, it tanks: skippable allegorical sections like the one about Life Story and Happiness Formula; confusing unparseable sections that maybe made more sense in Estonian (They were all one another’s grand-aunts and at the same time fathers-in-law as well). Here’s the other thing about this book: the sections, although many of them tie into each other, do not all require each other. There is no obligation to read Walker on Water in order. That’s the freeing thing about poems, or short stories, or what have you! You can skip the weaker ones! It’s easy to tell which ones they are: you’ll stall in the very first paragraph. And if you decide to grit your teeth and not skip them, you’ve only lost a couple pages worth of time anyway.

To be fair, there is something interesting in these more grandly philosophical chapters Ehin has included. They’re not entirely unsuccessful. They just drag in comparison to the wry energy that fills most of this book.

Sex is when I once lost my tail under the blanket and he helped me to find it.

Several armless husbands named Jaan; surrealist’s daughters turned beekeeper’s stepdaughters; dragons and giants; birds and apricot collections. It’s a wild ride.

And a uniquely feminist one. Ehin’s angle on sex, marriage, commitment is refreshingly unromantic. Lovers are interchangeable, easily replaced, all with the same name. This book exists in a culture which feels, amazingly, outside of the patriarchy, outside of heteronormativity. This is the most exciting thing about Ehin: she doesn’t play by the rules. Walker on Water does not feel like a response, a statement, a backlash against something. It is its own game and it does not care what you think a marriage is supposed to look like.

We kept pressing more and yet more cushions into each other’s mouth and again and again swallowed them down. It was a maddening situation. Although neither of us could hear the other, at the end of the day one of us should have shut up and concentrated on the other’s stories for appearance’s sake, if for nothing else.

This little tale could be trying to make some larger point about gender roles and relationship communication. Only it ends with the couple being repurposed as pillows:

The young dragon bride rested her head on me and the giant rested his on my husband. We lay side by side at the head of their bed and felt with our entire bodies the enamoured breathing of those two primeval beings.

I could probably analyze this metaphor as social commentary if I tried hard enough. But I don’t want to! The couple turns each other into pillows and then they become pillows for the next couple. The next couple has broken the mold: instead of being parallel deaf ramblers they are a dragon and a giant.

Do not try and make this an allegory: it defies allegories! Allegories are the enemy in this book! The passage about Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question would be great if it wasn’t for the darn allegories! And one evening Stone Chunk told Beautiful Question right to her face, “You’re not really Beautiful Question, you’re a Piece of Flesh.”

Stay concrete, Kristiina Ehin, you psychotic princess, and I will follow you straight across lakes, allow myself to be buoyed by your brains, splash around in pure joy at your insanity. Abstractions, allegories, heavy-handedness weighs you down. Cut about fifteen pages out of this book and it will become one of my top five public-transit reads. Leave it as is, and it’s a little more uneven but it’s still damn fun.

I kept the Teacher of Joy’s red currants well frozen and his containers of milk properly chilled.

It’s absolutely worth a read.

You can purchase Walker on Water direct from Unnamed Press, here.


* According to the back of the book, these are technically “Short Stories,” but I’m a poet and so I’m going to pigeonhole it into the cubby that I better understand. It’s all semantics, anyways.


mayasmallMaya Lowy has never kissed an Aries, changed a tire by herself, successfully used a joystick, or been     stung by a bee. However, she has forded the Salmon River, excavated a Paleolithic site in Transylvania, milked a goat, and lost to a Scrabble world champion. You can follow her jokes @mayalowy and her rarely-updated adventures at fuckintruckin.wordpress.com; offline, she’ll be happy to challenge you to a darts game at any bar in the New Orleans metropolitan area. She reads your Quaint submissions, and is happy to review your books for the Quaint blog!

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