WiHM7 review #1: Fence Lines by Joanne Anderton
It was hard to choose which story to review from Joanne Anderton’s award-winning collection, The Bone Chime Song. So many, gnarled, unusual tales, so many weird, memorable worlds, each rendered in spare, vivid prose. Fence Lines drew short straw for being one of the most recent stories in the collection and one I hadn’t yet read.
The story is set in an unnamed post-apocalyptic world, in which the mysterious fence lines of the title are all that stand between sanctuary and the horrors outside, the flames and toxic ash, the deathless ghouls among the fires. From this scorched backdrop, Anne, her young son Tom, and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law, emerge seeking refuge within a desolate sugar plantation, maintained by Kara and her dying mother.
Kara grants them safety behind the fence lines, if they are willing to work for it. The plantation is coming to the end of a “cycle”, and the harvest and gruelling refinement of the sugar is too much for just one person. From the beginning, there is tension and distrust between the two women, neither willing to let down their guard, and the new arrivals, conditioned by fear—having survived for years in the burning world—are reluctant to believe in the possibility of safety, afraid to sleep with both eyes closed.
Soon, though, Anne and Tom are gaining strength—the hard work, the sleep, and the mysterious properties of the sugar are bringing them back to life. But as the cycle comes to its close Kara begins to change, and the true nature of the plantation and the fence lines that protect it is revealed. The cost of safety will be high for Anne and her family, but what they receive in exchange will last longer than their bodies.
Anderton paints the world of Fence Lines with deft strokes, leaving just enough to the imagination to bring both the mysteries of the plantation and the horrors of the world outside to vivid life. The apocalypse and its perpetuation—the flames that never stop burning, the foul ash that infects all it touches—are only ever alluded to, yet the sense of relief we feel behind the ghostly fence lines is palpable. Although the plantation produces only a single crop, it is a world still *alive*. And though the work is blistering, back-breaking, harsh in the extreme (you could write a whole essay on Fence Line’s inversion of the horrors of colonial sugar plantations), it is a holiday compared with the moment-to-moment fight for survival in the world beyond.
The story’s central mystery is unveiled with precision, like the mist that slowly clears to reveal the fate of Tom’s grandfather. Although, by increments, we discover the truth of the fence lines, they are never described visually by either protagonist, leaving them mysterious and other-worldly even after the story’s close. Similarly, the grotesque transformation of Kara’s mother and of the intimate connection the two women share with the plantation’s crop—the true meaning of the “cycle”—is present from the very beginning of the story, yet comes into focus only in the final scenes. When at last we get the big reveal, it is delivered not as a twist but as an inevitability.
At the heart of Fence Lines is a story of transformation and rebirth. The sugar is a heretical communion, the literal body of an eternal woman who is both the mother of herself and her own daughter, all one in the sprouting cane. The refugees are nourished by her, they are sustained, long enough to perpetuate the cycle before they too are drawn to join the fence lines. The world outside is an embodiment of hell: the flames never die, and neither do the creatures within them, those once-humans, irreversibly transformed by the ash and smoke. By comparison, the plantation is a kind of heaven, a physical gateway to a happier afterlife, in which those who enter—who the fence lines, motivated by their own hunger, allow to enter—are granted an eternity in the service of the cane goddess.
But Fence Lines is not some trite religious metaphor. It condenses and distills themes that run through the other stories in Anderton’s collection. That transcendence is bound to the body and its transformation: the cane bursting from within the dying mother and sprouting beneath Kara’s skin parallels Mah Song, with its Akira-like tech-gods and the painful bodily modifications of its chosen ones; there are reflections, too, in the life-giving properties of art in Sanaa’s Army, or the covert self-mutilations of the narrator in Always A Price. That magic and sacrifice are intertwined, inseparable: like Casimir’s buried atrocities in The Bone Chime Song, the creature in the alley in Always A Price, the very literal sacrifice of the Mah Song.
Reading this collection you can’t help but feel that, while the world may be filled with horror and darkness, and though events will likely not work out the way we want them too, there is a core of goodness at the heart of things.