Short Story Review: Laughter Among the Trees by Suzan Palumbo

The highway to the campground cuts through the granite Laurentian Plateau like a desiccated wound. It’s been twenty five years since I’ve retraced this road and, though the comfort stops along the route have been expanded and streamlined, the forest and rock remain the same: Ancient, silent and unflinching.

I was fourteen when we retreated South West on this stretch to the suburbs of Toronto—me in the back of my parents’ station wagon, the emptiness of Sab’s seat corroding our ability to speak. I couldn’t look through the rear window as we sped away. I didn’t want to acknowledge we were abandoning the search—leaving Sab behind.

-Laughter Among The Trees, Suzan Palumbo, The Dark Magazine

This story features racism and child death.

“Laughter Among the Trees” is a horror story from Trini-Canadian author Suzan Palumbo, and it’s a chilling, desperate story about diaspora, sibling relationships and – more than anything else – guilt. The narrator, Anarika, returns to a campground twenty-five years after her sister disappears, presumed dead, finally pushed to go and find out what happened by her mother’s deathbed confession. Anarika and Sabrina’s relationship is difficult from the very beginning; while Anarika immigrated with her family from Trinidad, Sabrina was born in Toronto, already “more Canadian”, better at fitting in, more likeable, with fewer responsibilities to carry. Ana can’t help but be bitter about her responsibilities towards her sister, especially when like all ten-year-olds, Sab is a brat about it, blackmailing Ana into keeping her secrets and letting her do whatever she wants.

One of the most striking things for me about this story is how it weaves diaspora and immigrant experience into an otherwise-known narrative to bring a new story out of it. Horror stories about a missing child aren’t a new thing, any more than most horror tropes are; but in this, Sabrina is more than just one missing kid. She’s the anchor baby, the “new hope” baby that rooted an immigrant family into a different, confusing country; an unattainable standard for the other, older sibling to reach. Ana’s guilt over losing Sabrina is inextricably entwined with her guilt for not being white enough, not being Canadian enough, not adorable enough or straight enough – she takes on all of the dreams of what Sabrina was “supposed” to be and builds them into herself. The irony is, of course, is that if Sabrina had lived, she would have fallen short of those expectations; but as a ghost, the specter of What Could Have Been is all the more dangerous.

I also love that Palumbo lets the mother and father in particular speak in Trini English, rather than standardizing their dialects for a white Canadian audience. It’s something I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it always makes me happy to see. It’s all the more striking because it’s a Canadian story; so many diasporic stories still take place either in unspecified territory or in U.S., implicitly letting white Canadiana off the hook.

Read Laughter Among the Trees by Suzan Palumbo here.

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