Book Review: The Bitter Kind

The Bitter Kind

The Bitter Kind, Tara Lynn Masih and James Claffey. Červená Barva Press, 2020.

The Bitter Kind is sixty-eight pages of legend, lemons, ghosts, and begonias, shifting deftly between genre and perspective. James Claffey writes for Stela, the daughter of an alcoholic shipping captain. Tara Masih voices Brandy, who is orphaned at a young age and ill at ease in the world of humans. The two writers tell their stories in intermittent flashes that shrink and accelerate as they approach their intersection.

Prior to this collaboration, Stela and Brandy had each appeared in unrelated short stories by their respective authors. Perhaps in part because of this, they retain agency within the novelette’s structure. Their complex lives and histories function independently of whether their paths might eventually cross—though they do.

The book opens in the midst of Stela’s raw and painful childhood, then spans the four decades that follow. The years of her father’s abuse—as well as his songs and bay rum scent—dog her through a string of abusive relationships. Somehow, even when she is howling in despair, or scribbling bad poetry for weeks on end, Claffey manages to imbue Stela with resilience and hope. As she leaves another man and another Victrola behind, she notices “on the telephone wires, crows sit spaced unevenly, yet Stela discerns a pattern in their spacing, musical notes that reorder themselves into the allegro of Copland’s Appalachian Spring,” (p. 39).

Brandy’s sections are quieter; we rarely hear him speak. But Masih’s writing matches the lyricism and longing of the other sections. Brandy’s father is white; his mother a Chippewa Cree. As a young child, “Brandy doesn’t know who he is. Indian? White? Wolf?” (p. 10). He sees ghosts, hears trees weeping, but little binds him to the world of humans after the death of his parents. Indeed, his search to figure out how and where he fits within human community charts his path.

In the fake frontier towns where he finds work, he avoids the tourists in lieu of a dead schoolteacher and other past inhabitants. “They tie him to that place, those eyes, feed him and keep him steady. It is easy to love a ghost who asks nothing of you,” (p. 45). Still, there is loneliness. There are times when he must set out “to find something alive,” only to find “he’s back with himself, surrounded by himself,” (p. 49).

The characters and stories are tied by poetic language and parallel isolation. Both carry their pasts with them, and neither settles for long in the present. While Stela moves from man to man, looking for connection, Brandy moves from place to place, struggling to feel at home. Each wonders: Who am I alone? Without my parents? Without my ghosts?

But to meet they must bring the ghosts with them—the good ones: the Wolf and the Victrola—keeping what gives them strength and clarity, while hacking away at the wisteria trailing them, holding them, keeping them alone and apart.

Beret Olsen is a writer, artist, and part-time insomniac, as well as the photo editor for 100 Word Story. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, two teens, and a grubby, gopher-munching dog.

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