Filter House by Nisi Shawl
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Nisi Shawl’s Filter House is kind of a wild collection of stories. I found two key observations on this book that serve as both the predominant strengths and weaknesses.
First is how eclectic it is. While the themes—revolving mainly around the nature of power, mother-daughter relationships, the idea of the human (or not) family—are consistent, the genre trappings could not be more diverse. Shawl’s imaginative prose tells of many, many worlds, from a magical modern day to folkloric ancient cultures to dystopian futures. I see that stories are grouped together due to their strong thematic connections, and in fact I think the many variations on the same core elements show just how intelligent Shawl is as a writer, but the distinct universes of each story made for a laborious reading process. It takes one a while to get adjusted to each story, place oneself within its internal logic and reality. The first reading of many of these stories can in fact be extremely frustrating seeing as how they often will just throw you into the thick of it, demanding you fill in the context on your own as you go along. Something brought up in the first paragraph may not be totally clear until the end. A common concept in their world may not be clearly explained but left up to the reader to infer. They are good stories in many ways, but by no means reader-friendly at first.
“Good Boy” is a colonial space opera wherein a pandemic is either creating widespread mental illness or people are becoming spiritually possessed. “Maggies” deals with the concept of the “human biocomputer” and mingles it with voodoo mythology. “Wallamelon” weaves a narrative around the phenomenon of the Blue Lady, a real-life urban legend. “The Water Museum” is a bizarre but not altogether inaccessible story of the narrator toying with her would-be assassin. These and the others all carry great concepts, absolutely. Yet they are so out of sync with each other on a genre level that transitioning from one to the next can be tiring.
That aside, the second observation is how these stories are constructed. They are slow and experimental. I had trouble getting into them due to their lack of linear storytelling and convoluted approaches to something resembling a conclusion. It always, at least, felt intentional. They are by no means playful, carelessly put together for base enjoyment. Each story feels well-constructed with a solid thematic backbone and vital setting. This is reading as a nonlinear process, in the same vein as Samuel R. Delany. To gain everything from these stories, you have to read and re-read and study the background of each story. Without at least a little knowledge of voodoo folklore, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on some of the finer points of “Good Boy” and “Maggies”. I found myself frustrated on occasion, skimming through sections of a story because I wasn’t equipped to deal with the content. I wouldn’t call this bad writing—in fact, it’s really intelligent and creative writing—but it isn’t easy or pleasurable to read. I would recommend keeping that in mind if you are interested in this collection.
Filter House has a lot to unpack. As I’ve found, that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a project to read—a fulfilling one, I would say—but not something one should read in leisure.