The Disobedience of Water: Stories and Novellas


Evoking passion and heartbreak., intelligence and unapologetic humanity, these eight beautifully crafted stories explore the boundary conditions between the self and others. Although social realities — racial and ethnic tensions, sexual harassment, and abuse — make up their background, these are really love stories in which people discover and forgive one another. A daughter finds her father's kindness extends beyond her and their family; a wife discovers and forgives the affair between her husband and best ...

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Evoking passion and heartbreak., intelligence and unapologetic humanity, these eight beautifully crafted stories explore the boundary conditions between the self and others. Although social realities — racial and ethnic tensions, sexual harassment, and abuse — make up their background, these are really love stories in which people discover and forgive one another. A daughter finds her father's kindness extends beyond her and their family; a wife discovers and forgives the affair between her husband and best friend; and, in the title story which takes the form of a letter to an almost-lover, the narrator winds through swirling eddies of memory and language to relate her present and past lives and the loves that have informed them.

Written with a masterful sureness of hand and heart, these captivating, intimate stories display Sena Jeter Naslund's extraordinary presence as one of today's most rewarding writers of fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The eight lyrical stories and novellas in this collection should buoy Naslund's reputation, already riding high for her 1994 novel Sherlock in Love, even higher. Plot matters less to Naslund than voice, sympathy, setting and tone: hospitable readers will be won over right off by "Madame Charpentier and Her Children," which describes a woman beginning anew after a friend's suicide: "It was autumn and we had already gone back to teaching, but the grip of the university was still loose and the feeling of summer cradled us." In "The Shape You're In," a 25-year-old artist flees Atlanta and her disturbed ex-lover to what she hopes will be a new life in Montana. Sarah discovers, however, that her Southern habits have followed her west: "Like many Southerners, she knows there is a kind of protection in politeness. It has a kind of beauty of its own, too." The title story draws its power from an unconsummated love affair whose memory hangs as powerfully as any unconsummated relationship over the narrator, a single mother. She concludes, "I will know one thing about the heart--that it can break endlessly." Almost every entry here finds fluidity and confidence in its prose. In Naslund's tightly observed worlds, quiet betrayals resonate long after their occasions have faded.
Library Journal
Naslund's Sherlock in Love was an elegant riff on the Holmesian theme, but though these stories are elegant, too, one wouldn't necessarily expect them as a follow-up. They're a bit quirkier, a bit more modern, but just as satisfying in their own way. Naslund's protagonists are often in the process of being redefined, sometimes by themselves, more often by outsiders. The little girl named Tink in "I Am Born," who has observed her doctor father helping a young black girl give birth, is aghast when the new mother wants to name her child Tink, too, and--betrayal of betrayals--her father not only agrees but expects her to be grateful. In "The Shape You're In," a young woman flees a certifiably insane boyfriend for a job teaching in the wilds of Montana, where she must contend with wild animals of both the four-footed and two-footed male variety. Some of these stories don't quite coalesce, but on the whole this is satisfying reading.--Barbara Hoffert
Maud Casey
...[F]iercely beautiful....Naslund has an eye for odd, telling details and a gift for rendering...this oddness in language...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The Disobedience Of Water ( April 30; 224 pp.; 1-56792-071-3): A rich gathering of eight meditative and beautifully written stories by the author of two earlier small-press collections and the witty novel Sherlock in Love. (1994). Naslund is especially skilled at creating memorable protagonists. Among her best: the young girl of "I Am Born," who discovers while "helping" her doctor father deliver a baby that she's not the only focus of his attention; the preadolescent protagonist of "In the Free State," who is rudely introduced to the violence of "chicken fighting" and the mingled delight and terror of sexuality; and the title story's articulate single mother, who writes an impassioned "story-letter" exploring her own frustrating history of love and loss. First-rate work, from a very underrated writer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688178451
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 920,288
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Jeter Naslund is a cofounder and program director of the Spalding University (Louisville) brief-residency MFA in Writing, where she edits The Louisville Review and Fleur-de-Lis Press. A winner of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction award, she is the author of eight previous works of fiction, including Ahab's Wife, a finalist for the Orange Prize. She recently retired from her position as Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Louisville.

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    1. Hometown:
      Louisville, Kentucky
    1. Education:
      B.A., Birmingham-Southern College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Iowa Writers' Workshop

Read an Excerpt

I Am Born

Tink! Tink!"

I seem to hear my brother calling me. It is Paul's voice, the voice of my twin brother.

His voice reaches the place where I sit waiting. I am in the middle of the seven concrete steps that stretch between home and the sidewalk where the world begins. I am six years old, it is summer in Birmingham, and I am writing with a wedge of gray stone on the concrete. I form pictures on the steps -- a whale, a star. The gravel twists in my fingers, and I scrape my knuckle. When I suck my hurt I am tantalized by the taste of my blood and the texture of grit. I pick up the gravel and turn it so that a new point will engage the concrete.


He wants me. But first I must explain about my name, my odd nickname: Tink.

It was a gray December day, Mama later told me; and she wondered aloud to Paul and me, sitting in our wooden high chairs. She went to the window and wondered aloud if it would snow. "I t'ink so," I said.

I remember the sudden swirl, the view out the window -- a gray forsythia bush, tangled on itself like a pile of coat hangers.

She had pulled me out of the high chair to waltz me around the room. My mother was delighted that my sentence reported my own private mental activity. Paul squalled jealously.

She plunked me back in the chair, dashed to the piano, and played Chopin's "Winter Wind Etude" for us. Both Paul and I loved the "Winter Wind"; when we could talk better, we compared our responses and found that I loved the fierce chromatics that come tumbling down the keyboard, while he loved the stirring melody that cuts clearly through all the chromatic swirling. My mother playedso passionately. Though confined to our high chairs, Paul and I swirled our arms around our heads and fluttered our fingers. Surely the weather gods would hear her playing and bring us essence of winter-snow.

Mother's hair was long and black -- she was descended from the Spanish who were shipwrecked in, Ireland, made the best of it, and produced the "black" Irish -- and she wore her hair in a coronet over her head. She with her black hair and white arms seemed to dovetail with the upright black piano and the black-and-white keyboard.

I heard this tale of my first sentence many times when I was growing up and told it often myself to explain my odd nickname. One of my earliest friends had asked if "Tink" were short for "Stink." You do smell bad, she had said. Only when I was a young adult did it occur to me to ask my mother if it did, in fact, snow on that December day.

"No," she said.

Why had no one warned me that my first syntactically complete sentence had been an error in judgment? Why didn't I consider the real context for my thoughts, that this was Birmingham, the Deep South, and the chance of it snowing was very slim -- maybe once every four or five years?

Tink, I have something, I can hear my brother saying. It still makes my heart beat fast for someone I love to arouse my curiosity that way: I have something.

Paul came up the steps fist forward: "Guess."

I guessed a four-leaf clover? a nickel? grass?

He opened his hand. It was empty.

"Not fair, you stinker," I said.

"Can't you see?" he asked.

I looked from the palm of his hand to his face. He was triumphant.

"Air," he said. "I'm holding air. It's very valuable. You couldn't live without it."

I thought disdainfully, "Neither could you." But I said humbly, "Hey, you're right."

And he vanishes. His voice is silent.

I am alone again on the concrete steps. I pause from my writing -- whale, star, boat, cloud -- to flap my plaid skirt up and down like a fan. I would be glad if some passerby saw this smart girl who uses her skirt on a hot day for a fan and whose underpants are perfect. But there, just above the elastic waistband, is something new. A blister, sweetly oval and filled tightly with fluid. The skin over the blister is thin enough to see through and more slick than any other skin on my body. I finger it. The word pox forms in my mind and hangs like a drop of dew that refuses to fall. I decide to keep this red bump hidden, and I cover it with my plaid skirt. I have a little treasure, a ruby, a something smooth and oval as half a tiny egg.

It was almost dark when I hid in the back seat of my father's car so that I could finger my blister in peace. I sat between two large, paper-wrapped bundles of clean laundry that had not yet been taken into the house. They looked like great loaves of bread.

I peeked through a crack in the paper, then touched a starched and ironed white sheet. I lay down on the floorboard of the car and pulled the laundry bundles on top of me. If two boulders were lying on me, would I be able to breathe? Could I get valuable air into my lungs? The weight of the rocks was so great that I could not expand my chest. I held my breath as long as I could.

Suddenly the front doors of the car were opened. My father got in the passenger side, and Jaybee, my father's driver, slid under the wheel; I could smell his cigarette odor immediately. I lay quietly.

"What's wrong with 'em?" Jaybee asked.

"The woman is going to have her first baby," my father answered.

"Oh, Lordy, " Jaybee said. "I hate them first timers, don't you, Uncle Melvin?" Jaybee's voice had a nasty relish to it.

My father didn't answer. Then he said, "Drive down Vanderbilt Road, then go down that alley beside Clapp's store. The grandfather said it was about five blocks into the Quarters, next to an oak tree."

The Disobedience of Water. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

I Am Born 3
Madame Charpentier and Her Children 19
In the Free State 35
The Shape You're In 67
Burning Boy 96
The Death of Julius Geissler 112
How Do You Do, Mister Cat? 152
The Disobedience of Water 170
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2001

    Searching the Soul for Resolution

    These stories push characters into uncomfortable places, whether present or remembered. Main characters face past or current situations of victimization or loss and come to see themselves differently. These characters lose innocence, identity/roles, long-held perspectives, hopes, and fears during points of crisis. I enjoyed the book, with the exception of the story 'Death of Julius Geissler;' I did not feel that the characters were genuine. However, the remainder of the book is excellent and showcases Naslund's abilities as a character-focused author. The book is not lighthearted but intensely introspective.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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