It’s fittingly difficult to pin down Colleen Burner’s debut novel, or novella, Sister Golden Calf. At once fragmented and expansive, set in the recognizable territory of New Mexico’s highways but also infused with magical realism, the book resists categorization. The protagonists, sisters Kit and Gloria, know a thing or two about capturing the ineffable: they grew up collecting “invisible things for feeling and knowing” in jars to sell with their mother on the side of the road, things like “BEGINNER’S LUCK,” “RATTLESNAKE AIM,” and “SHAME OF TENDERNESS.” With their mother Bonnie now dead, the sisters set out on a drive to escape their grief, gathering obsessions and acquaintances along the way.
For all their collecting of wild things, it’s Gloria who feels trapped, both within the intimacy of her relationship with Kit and within her grief for Bonnie. The way out arrives reflected back from a taxidermied Siamese Hereford calf at the Billy the Kid Museum, who Gloria eventually sets out to rescue from her display.
“What we collect,” Gloria explains early on, “is either animal or atmosphere.” Burner’s descriptions span both, fusing the sensory and the abstract. “You feel that?” Kit asks a woman who picks up a jar containing a coyote soul. “‘Yeah, kind of like…four new legs running in my pulse,’” the woman replies.
The structure of Sister Golden Calf—vignettes that vary in length from a few sentences to several pages—mimics the episodic nature of a road trip. Characters appear and disappear and reappear again, signposts along the sisters’ journey. But the vignettes also call to mind jars themselves: memories teem over into later sections, and relationships are held up and reexamined in different lights, in moments that blur the line between container and contained. Gloria articulates her grief as both a space to fill, “bigger than me,” and also “an animal trapped inside me, clawing at the walls.” The animals in the novel—the preserved calf, a Great Dane named Mom, a blind horse who bucked a girl to her death and still lives in the family’s backyard—approach so near to Gloria’s grief that they absorb it even as they invite it to burst free. Even Kit’s body, Gloria observes, is “so much like mine that I accumulate a feeling of being surrounded by myself too much, confusing the observation with the experience.”
This idea of accumulation is at the heart of the novel, both structurally and thematically. Burner themself builds upon language from Patti Smith, Alice Walker, and William Blake within the text. And like jars stacked in the trunk, Gloria’s encounters with roadside characters assemble into a conception of herself that threatens to topple over when she sets out on her own, separate from Kit. You can feel the pressure build. Nowhere is this effect stronger than when Burner allows the language of loss to sprawl. At one point, walking alone in the dark, Gloria lists no fewer than nine catastrophes that might have befallen Kit since they parted ways. She tries to describe this state of anticipatory grief: “a sudden dark pocket, an emotional tiger trap. Just walk around it, then—but how can you walk around something you can’t see the edge of?” Later, in a single devastating sentence the length of a paragraph, we encounter a treasure trove of Bonnie’s gestures and habits, each introduced with a gutting, final “no more.” Burner evokes that which is gone so precisely, so wrenchingly, that you can’t help but yearn for it too.
“So what does that want mean?” Gloria asks, stolen calf in the backseat. “The Want that ultimately feels more ripe with possibilities than the Have?”
This is the triumph of Sister Golden Calf: making the intangible felt. Gloria, musing on the process of collecting invisible things, describes the way “some things are shy, obscured, and capturing them feels sublime but quick and ecliptic.” Burner’s novel is like that: stark emotion beneath cinematic detail, each tiny vignette offering more on second read. It is risky, it is alive, and it will not leave you.
Sister Golden Calf
By Colleen Burner
Published September 19, 2023