As does a classic syllogism, the narrative of Emma Renault’s KALIKO ON THE SHOALS does have a few concise givens. The scope of Kaliko’s world is that of the beach and its environs which include a secret island she accesses through an underwater tunnel and a crystal-lined cave in which she sleep and cooks her meals. Kaliko has a girlfriend named Luna who goes to college in the semi-distant yet close-enough-for-a-train-ride city. And that is about it for the concrete elements of the story. The rest exist on any given level of the real, the imagined, the fantastical and those that blur the lines of all extremes.
There’s the sudden appearance just off Kaliko’s island of a rotund mythological selkie named Ofelia, who eventually turns out to be just a human wrapping herself in a sealskin, and who may or may not get involved with Kaliko and whom Kaliko may or may not prod into a relationship with Luna. No suspicions then some suspicions then the truth learned through small hints leading up to a solid confirmation reveals that two of the story’s main characters are trans women. A shiny object discovered during a free dive leads to a shopping trip into town, then becomes a present of handcraft jewelry then is given away as a symbol of Kaliko’s endless quest for love on her own terms.
While it is this quest which drives Kaliko forward through life, she is unfortunately hampered by an abusive past which vividly haunts her in times of distress. In a nod to author Renault’s craft, that past manifests itself in Kaliko’s consciousness as a dour stage production designed all in black. Renault introduces this “production” gradually, beginning with the black stage curtains that stir and sway at the first sign of any problematic moment. Soon introduced into these stress events is the Man in Black, the antagonist of the macabre play and the active abuser of Kaliko’s past. In subsequent events he is joined by other actors, including the enigmatic Black Swan and the anthropomorphizing of distressful emotions such as self-doubt. This stage world develops piece by piece and in great detail as allowable for Kaliko’s overabundance of stressful moments.
It is this overabundance which is the book’s main, if only one of its few, detriments. There are an extreme amount of distressful moments, as well as happy moments and romantic moments and sexy moments and so many other moments in a vast expanse upon which the story’s thematic elements are spread. Kaliko’s search for love and her musings upon that search do warrant sufficient expanse, but not as much as is given here. The narrative situations upon which the thematic threads are woven are stretched out and revisited so many times that the entire pace slows and at times actually becomes a bit tedious. Such tedium, if it doesn’t cause readers to quickly lose interest, will at least cause them to begin skimming and eventually missing out on important plot indicators, and might dilute the book’s overall message that, no matter how unconventional or fantastical the situation, it is possible for anyone to find true love.
Quality wordcraft, poetic imagery and incredible insight into the LGBT experience make Emma Renault’s KALIKO ON THE SHOALS a worthwhile read.
~Johnny Masiulewicz for IndieReader