In “Watchfires,” published by Iowa City’s Rescue Press, Hilary Plum blends public and personal trauma and tragedy to create an unusual and hypnotic essay. Centered on the Boston Marathon bombing, her husband’s cancer, and her own struggles with anorexia and a seemingly undiagnosable illness, Plum investigates despair and destruction.
In a bold narrative conceit, Plum refers to herself in the third person throughout the first section of the book. For much of the book, this approach lends the essay something of the feel of a novel, with its author as protagonist.
But Plum is also exploring the nature of identity. She considers the conditions that shape us and how our past influences — without fully explaining or clarifying — our present. Here, she brings the competing facts of her past to the fore:
“Which she caused her illness, the one who meant to do good or the one who meant to harm herself? These selves do not of course exist: no one could distinguish between them, not even enough to name. There is only she, that exhausted pronoun.”
While the book’s first section offers challenges to the reader, it is the shorter second section that is most mysterious. Abandoning the third person for the first, she recounts conversations with “the boy,” whose identity is, perhaps, shifting in the manner of a dream. The passage is lyrical but opaque.
The final section of the book — less than two pages in length — returns us to the structure of the first section, until the final paragraph in which “she” becomes “you.” It is an affecting close to a book that questions who we are as individuals and how we are connected — or disconnected — from one another.