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Green Fuse Burning coverThe dedication of Green Fuse Burning reads “For all those in the swamplands.” This line, like most of this debut novella from acclaimed poet Tiffany Morris, has multiple meanings. The book is literally for those in the swamplands, in that its protagonist, artist Rita Francis, is a member of the Mi’kmaq people indigenous to North America’s Northeastern Woodlands, an area including a lot of wetlands. But it’s also for those who inhabit more metaphorical swamplands. The book is a meditation on anxiety, suicidal ideation, failing relationships, and most potently on grief, of both personal and climatological varieties. All this makes the novella an intriguing proposition, and it’s difficult to think of a more timely or relevant set of concerns for a horror story in 2023. (Mushrooms show up, as they do so often these days.) Yet while Morris’s prose is frequently beautiful, a number of structural weaknesses prevent the book from attaining classic status.

The book opens with an excerpt from a brochure for a gallery exhibition entitled “Devastation of Light: The Recovered Paintings of Rita Francis.” These paintings, we are told, were found in “the artist’s cabin following a mysterious disappearance,” suggesting the classic Weird fiction trope of documents recovered from a victim of otherworldly horror. A description of each painting accompanies each of the first six chapters, which chart Rita’s journey to an isolated cabin in the woods, her spiralling anxiety and contemplation of suicide, and her encounters with the mysterious fungal beings that inhabit the swamp. Rita’s trip comes at an inopportune moment. Still reeling from the death of her father and her disconnection from her Mi’kmaq heritage, she is press-ganged into an artist’s residency when her girlfriend Molly forges an application on her behalf. This forgery, along with Rita’s description of Molly as a “bougie white woman,” suggests the relationship was on shaky ground even before Rita’s encounter with the sublime terrors of the swamp.

The novella’s ekphrastic conceit helps highlight Morris’s strengths as a stylist. Descriptions of Rita’s paintings, where the “quiet violence of the green brushstrokes composes the landscape,” whet the reader’s appetite for the woods proper. Even at its most dangerous and otherworldly, the swamp remains a thing of beauty, with contrasts in its colours highlighting the death-bringing and life-giving nature of the space: “Daylight drained on the wounded horizon, the sun a yellow-orange infection oozing on the sky. Bioluminescent mushrooms … surrounded her, glowing toxic green.” This duality is invoked in one of many haunting proclamations: “Pestilence was both life and death; a birth that carried death in its core.”

Of course, it’s hard to discuss death and the natural world without thinking about climate change. Morris elegantly summons the burning terror of the climate crisis, but she also renders its sudden absences with a tender lyricism:

Spring, Rita figured, was a time of rupture, of the quiet violence of emergent life, water rushing from the womb in spasm, the soil rustling wormful with the carrion of past seasons. It was not in the deprivation of winter, a season that may never arrive in its ancient brutality ever again.

Morris intelligently connects climate grief to Rita’s more personal grief for her father. In this book, memories are as fragile and open to forcible change as ecosystems, as in one of the most striking passages:

She could still describe his face: long nose, thick eyebrows, and greyed hairline. But ever since he’d died, when she tried to remember how he had actually looked, his face was obscured by an oxygen mask, his chest heaving with each ragged breath. The world that had once contained a whole bright human being, a mess of want and contradiction like any other, was stained with the stale, sanitary smell of the hospital ICU—or, worse, the too-human smells of sick and dying bodies, cared for by fatigued staff in worn scrubs, made sharp by their own aches.

Grief formed her new reality, her new understanding of time, an invading force that occupied land and bodies in equal measure.

Her memories were colonized by trauma.

Writing for Broken Antler, Zachary Gillan states that Morris’s “meticulous word choice, flow, and use of language embody and give shape to Green Fuse Burning.” It’s hard to disagree; on a sentence-to-sentence level, the writing here is never less than excellent.

Chapter by chapter, however, things get trickier. A handful of lyrical ideas pop up several times, but they do not develop so much as repeat. In chapter one Rita contemplates budding leaves and is struck with a desire “to eat those blossom-soft colors and let them fill her with their life.” In chapter two Rita’s grief is described as “a chlorophyll feeding her and transforming her in the devastation of light,” and on the very next page we learn that “she’d brought the outside world’s deep greens into her body, accepted the infection of her mind.” This profusion of like imagery makes the book drag, despite its short length. When we reach the climax, a mind-wrenching confrontation with a mysterious “Lichen Woman,” it’s with a sense of relief that things have finally got going.

Some of the book’s repetitiveness can be chalked up to its subject matter. Grief, after all, is not without its repetitions. But this doesn’t explain the ending, which is curiously unsatisfying. Having feinted at the beginning that Rita may be dead, and having ended the penultimate chapter with her sinking into a pond, “ready to be remade in the waters,” the final chapter has her pop up at the exhibition opening in a highly anticlimactic fashion. We learn that she was rescued from the bog and has broken up with Molly, and her introductory remarks become a thesis statement for the novella overall. “These paintings are about death, more or less,” Rita tells us.

Accepting death is the understanding that consciousness is the shell of experience, not its inner sanctum—and death becomes a pilgrimage outside the golden cage of our material existence. I don’t mean this as an encouragement of death. This is not a call to create death by killing others, not a call to cut your own life’s thread short through suicide, but rather a call to understand that you, too, are nature, and nature loves above all else transmutation, and impermanence, and creation.

Not a bad insight, of course, but this speech rather shortchanges all the dark beauty and sublime weirdness that came before. The story ends with too neat a summing-up, making the novella feel more pat and obvious than it is.

Green Fuse Burning is a solid book, full of lovely, twisting imagery and dense, memorable prose. But its structural flaws and abrupt, disappointing end betray a project whose form doesn’t quite match its content. Ultimately, it’s easy to wonder if this decent novella might have made an extraordinary short story.



William Shaw is a writer from Sheffield, currently living in the USA. His writing has appeared in Space and Time, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine. You can find his blog at williamshawwriter.wordpress.com and his Twitter @Will_S_7.
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