The Other Side of the Pali
Book Reviewed By Roger Market
The Other Side of the Pali is a wonderful short story collection written and designed (in paperback form) by Emily Lee. The book’s cover is deceptively simple, but it is also inventive and breathtaking. The overlapping colors brought on by ripped pages are expertly placed, as if by a trained graphic designer. Which makes perfect sense because Lee is a graphic designer, too. Suffice it to say, this is no ordinary self-published book.
It starts with “Two Views of the Sea,” an otherworldly and yet very real tale of Hawaiian sisters Margaret and Ginny. When Margaret discovers an old Hawaiian myth, the sisters go on an underwater adventure together but still manage to have completely different experiences. This is a story steeped in myth and the idea that twins are not carbon copies but individuals in their own right. At age fourteen, Margaret and Ginny still have plenty to share, but now they are veering off, separately making discoveries about the world and themselves.
“The Other Side of the Pali,” the title story, appears later in the book. It is yet another tale of Hawaiian sisterhood, but this time, it’s serious. This time, the sisters involved are all grown up, and they’re dealing with the iniquities that come with age. On a purely emotional level, this story stands out. Easy criers should bring tissues.
“Sugar,” which is easily one of the most depressingly hilarious views of old age I’ve ever seen, brings on the laughs in a big way. The phrase “some things never change” is a bit of a cliché today, but in this story, it’s definitely true. The reader won’t believe how far these old friends and competitors will go to one-up each other. I’ve read the book several times, and I laugh out loud at this story every time.
“Cast-off String” is a beautiful vignette detailing the remnants of a lost love, as well as a burgled home that now “hums with someone else’s energy.” Despite the sorrow that permeates the first half of the story, the last line is so airy and delicate that it reinvigorates the reader, lifting him or her back up like the feather at the end of Forest Gump.
“Doctor of Restraint” takes a turn for the creepy, as a young doctor-in-training finds himself trapped with his mentor in a horror show of medicinal history. This story stretches believability a bit thin, however, as does “The Critique.” While these stories are not among my favorites, I love that they still manage to do what the rest of the book does on a fundamental level: present the two sides of a duality so crucial to the human experience. Fear and confidence, life and death, comedy and tragedy, sanity and insanity, Lee is consistent in her approach to storytelling, and the book ties together well.
“Rorschach Ink” is perhaps the most unrealistic story of the collection—but deliciously so. Readers may groan at the thought of reading a story about therapists; however, they should stick with this one. Here, Lee shows that borderline magical realism may be the key to a good, or at least interesting, therapist story.
Lee also has a gift for creating and relieving tension. Her wonderful sense of pacing fuels my appreciation for the penultimate story: “Balloon Ride.” If the stories in this book have been building up to something, this is it: the heartbreaking story whose final line will have the reader gasping at what just happened, yearning for more but feeling satisfied all at once.
The last story in the collection, “‘Ilima Lei,” takes the reader back to Hawaii for one last look at the culture that has clearly stolen Lee’s heart and underscores not only the book’s title but also its energy. In this story, Lee yet again takes an often-belittled element, the dream sequence, and provides something so refreshingly beautiful and frightening that the reader will wonder why it was ever considered a cliché. Alana of Ka‘a‘awa is Hawaii’s mute treasure, and it is perhaps her final scene that best evokes the Hawaiian feel of the book and brings it to its natural close.
And then the reader has nothing to do but literally close the book and feel that painstakingly designed square form in his or her hand. A perfect fit for short stories.