Reviews, Vol. 7.2, June 2013
Signal 8 Press, 2012
Perfect bound, 210 pp., $15.95
Review by Cindy Matthews
Watering Heaven is a collection of twenty short stories, many of which have appeared in other publications. From an e-mail interview, Peter Tieryas Liu mentioned that story inspiration came from various sources such as his wife, travels in Asia, a misplaced bottle of wine, and an argument. Like many writers of short fiction, Liu uses what is around him to create.
The first story, “Chronology of an Egg,” was a personal favourite. Liu admits it was the most fun to write. Written as a series of diary entries, our male protagonist meets, in Beijing, Sarah Chao, who has “an unusual genetic quirk that scares off most men.” Sarah lays an egg after she has sex.
In the second story, “Forbidden City Hoops,” Liu shows us he can craft unique images. To express how bad things had become for the female in the story, Liu writes “…an undercurrent of melancholy sieved through her like sticky porridge.”
Throughout many stories in the collection, Liu has incorporated references to Chinese folklore, dreams, and legends. These are ways for Liu to “explore…ideas in ways that might not normally be possible without a different façade or surface on which to paint the canvas.”
Some of what Liu writes is so disgusting and alarming, it took my breath away. His facility with language somehow softens the blow. When a girlfriend stirs Drano into her coffee, “she melted her esophagus and stomach, bombarded her entrails with acid, and left as the shell of a dead star.”
Liu often employs short, choppy sentences, mini-scenes, like a reel of videotape passing before our eyes. He writes about things we contemplate like what it might be like to write a graffiti comment on the outside wall of a restaurant when the food sucks (“Chronology of an Egg”).
In his writing, there are intense moments of drift where he takes the reader off on a tangent, injecting wonder, chaos, and desire. In “Rodenticide,” the community of Antarsia is overrun with mutated rats, so a collective movement ensues to rid them of the pests. The town’s mayor spends more time perusing the thesaurus and reading Shel Silverstein to his plants than concentrating on the real issues at hand, like rats chewing themselves into refrigerators. The ending is sure to haunt you.
In all of the stories, Liu shows us characters stuck in search mode, seeking a perfect relationship, a concept, recovery from loss, or simply a different life. Many are in a rut of anxious turmoil.
Many of the stories take place in Asia, where Liu injects descriptions of the streetscapes, food, people, and atmosphere to good purpose, making the reader feel they are along for the ride, too. In “A Beijing Romance,” Liu writes about the city: “Several million people were squeezed into the metropolis that was undergoing constant surgery on its ruptured streets, a gallery of stenches from boiled pigeon to fried pig feet wafting through the polluted oblivion of its emblazoned skies.”
At times, I found myself bombarded by too many adverbs. A few stories felt repetitive with similar protagonists seeking similar types of women. Despite these minor flaws, Watering Heaven is a terrific read. In fact, rereading the stories is enriching. While magical realism is not my usual interest, I found Liu’s stories to be captivating, creative, at times humorous, and most importantly, worth reading. Liu’s writing reminded me a lot of the British author, Adam Marek.
Liu takes normal emotions and situations and spins them in unique ways. Liu’s advice to other writers is to “enjoy life, listen to everyone, travel, tell stories and work on your craft.” I intend to watch for more by this creative short fiction writer.