Please note that ‘Rondine al Nido’ contains graphic descriptions of rape, which are referenced in this article and which some readers may find disturbing.
Also: Other Fetish articles you may have read focus on classics of the short story, i.e., pieces of non-contemporary fiction. While this is great, as these stories are typically better known by a wider audience, we believe that it’s also important to include new contemporary works – to juxtapose against the classics but also to provide an analysis of what is in the current zeitgeist. Unfortunately, this does mean that we can’t provide a link to this Fetish article’s accompanying short story, but we strongly advise you to pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library.
Here is also a link to where you can find your own copy of the collection: https://guardianbookshop.com/battleborn-9781847084873
Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn – a collection of ten short stories, ranging from the absurd, to the hilarious, to the downright tragic – was released in 2012 to huge accolades. There are too many awards to mention, but some include the Story Prize, Dylan Thomas Prize and Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Art.
Revisiting this collection, I realise I could have picked any one of the ten stories within it for Fetish. Each piece is well-rounded, beautifully crafted and contains tropes and devices that I would love to deep dive into.
Alas though,for now I’m limited to one story, and I’ve chosen ‘Rondine al Nido’. Epigraphed with a citation from the Bhagavad Gita – ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’ – this story is a chilling account of two young girls who find themselves in over their heads, and the ensuing aftermath. There are plenty of areas we could have investigated for the story, but in the end, I decided to zoom in on Vaye Watkins’s use of suspense, which as we’ll see keeps the reader heavily invested in each and every word from the off.
‘Rondine al Nido’ is a third-person story, set between present and a strange future tense (more on that later!). Its main character, an unnamed thirty-year-old woman, who is referred to as ‘our girl’ throughout, is sharing stories with her new lover, referred to as ‘the sensible man’. He tells her tragic tales of his time as a social worker before ‘our girl’ presses him for more, for something personal, to which he reveals that he once accidentally burned down a neighbour’s farmhouse. And then it’s ‘our girl’s’ turn to share, and the main storyline begins.
In this new thread, ‘our girl’ reveals how as a sixteen-year-old high-school student, she and a friend, Lena, travelled to Las Vegas looking for fun and boys. The two of them get more than they bargained for after meeting a group of men who take advantage of Lena in a hotel room, while ‘our girl’ watches on.
The story ends with a view of the two girls’ relationship, which fast deteriorates upon their return to their hometown, and of Lena as a shattered version of her former self.
Before we jump into the different tenses of the story, let’s first discuss structure. As we know already, structure is the building blocks for a good story. Whether it’s a traditional ‘beginning, middle and end’ or something less linear, structure is what all the other literary devices hang off.
‘Rondine al Nido’ is far from conventional when it comes to its structure. While most stories jump straight into the principal narrative, Vaye Watkins instead chooses to start with an introductory preamble – approximately two pages of set-up, where a future version of ‘our girl’ shares stories with ‘the sensible man’.
This is interesting for a few reasons.
For a start, it’s risqué. Most writers and editors would shy away from such a device, instead opting to dive straight into the action. They would, perhaps, argue that the preamble creates an avoidable space between the story and the reader, that it’s less intimate as a result. And I don’t think they would be wrong, per se. But there is, of course, an upside to the preamble choice. It injects tension and drama before the principal story has even begun. The stories that ‘our girl’s’ lover tells – about cruelty and mistake and regret – let the reader know that something else is coming, something bigger. It prepares us for the principal story. It has us lurching forward to the edges of our seats.
Vaye Watkins returns to this scene – of ‘our girl’ telling a story to ‘the sensible man’ in bed – later in ‘Rondine al Nido’, to foreshadow future events and also once the principal narrative’s action is complete. It’s a neat device. The story’s crescendo has been reached, and we’re now entering the denouement, the wind-down toward the story’s end, marked by Vaye Watkins with a section break, and a reminder that this whole story is one that will later be told by a thirty-year-old ‘our girl’. The mood has shifted since we were last there. Before, it was playful and flirty. Now it’s serious. ‘The sensible man’ is shocked and disturbed:
‘… she’ll see relief in his face, the excess of which will force her to turn from him…’
‘Three, then, he’ll say, his voice blank as a dead thing.’
It signals the beginning of the end. The tone is now sombre and utterly transformed. Just like ‘the sensible man’, the reader has been taken on a journey that is shocking, moving and mesmerising.
One of the things that I love most about Vaye Watkins’s writing is her seemingly endless list of ingenious devices she employs in her work to constantly keep the reader guessing. And ‘Rondine al Nido’ is no different. From the very first sentence, we know that we’re dealing with something special, something out of the ordinary.
She will be thirty when she walks out on a man who in the end, she’ll decide, didn’t love her enough, though he in fact did love her, but his love wrenched something inside him, and this caused him to hurt her.’
Yes, this is a gorgeous piece of writing, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story with sublime skill and precision. But what’s especially interesting here is the tense: ‘She will…’ It is, to the best of my memory, the only piece of fiction I can remember reading set in a future tense. To confuse matters further, the main plot of ‘our girl’ and Lena’s trip to Las Vegas is written in present tense, where it remains for much of the story until its denouement.
So what exactly is Vaye Watkins playing at here?
As we discussed above, ‘Rondine al Nido’ is divided into two stories, structurally speaking. It’s a story within a story. By using different tenses for each one, Vaye Watkins is marking them as separate from one another. For instance, we’re not lost when we jump back into the thirty-year-old ‘our girl’ story because of the tense change – we know immediately that the narrative has shifted. It is seamless and smart writing.
The more interesting question is why Vaye Watkins chooses future as one of the two tenses employed here. Wouldn’t present and past make more sense?
The future tense is an admirable choice. By its very nature, it’s fast paced and exciting. Just take a look at some snappy sentences from the preamble:
‘He will talk and she will listen.’
‘He will have a devastating laugh.’
‘The sensible man will be waiting.’
Everything about these lines is also about tension and expectation. As a reader, we’re constantly on the precipice. The action is always about to happen, rather than in the process of happening, as it is in present tense, or having already happened, as is the case with past tense.
Coupled with the present tense used for the principal narrative – a style which is direct and intimate in its own right – the tense choices made by Vaye Watkins in ‘Rondine al Nido’ render the story lightning quick and oozing with tension, from start to finish.
It would be remiss to applaud ‘Rondine al Nido’ for its sense of urgency and tension without also mentioning the excellent prose throughout. Yes, the choice of tenses certainly helps, but almost every sentence in the story adds to the rhythm and pacing, not least of all because of Vaye Watkins’s employment of foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is probably a term you’re familiar with already. It’s a device used in storytelling to give a sense or indication of what’s to come, without explicitly saying it. The oft-quoted literary example is from Romeo and Juliette, where the death of the two lovers is foreshadowed from the start:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. Whose misadventures, piteous overthrows, do with their death, bury their parents’ strife.
In ‘Rondine al Nido’, there is foreshadowing from the off. You could argue that the entire preamble that we discussed earlier is foreshadowing, in that we know a story is coming about ‘our girl’s’ life, and that it will likely be a shocking one. Indeed, when we return to the future tense story, mid-way through, Vaye Watkins’s drops her most clear use of foreshadowing, when ‘the sensible man’ anticipates the climax of the story that ‘our girl’ is telling him: ‘He’ll know what’s coming, this will only make it worse.’
However, there is a more subtle (and in my opinion, more effective) use of foreshadowing at play in this story, laced directly into the prose of the principal narrative. It’s a constant and subtle nudge for the reader, in this case creating an unsettled mood, a feeling of danger that is, tragically, reflected in the events that take place later in the story.
Consider one of the early and most poignant uses, before Lena and ‘our girl’ set off for Las Vegas:
It’s just the tip of the summer, which means there are college boys … boys who come to Las Vegas looking for girls to do the things she and Lena think they are willing to do.
At this point of the story, we know little about the upcoming trip that Lena and ‘our girl’ will take, except that it’s an example of two sixteen-year-old girls doing something reckless – nothing out of the ordinary there. But this line tells the reader that they are – or at least will become – in over their heads in Las Vegas, and that boys will be involved.
Once the girls arrive in Las Vegas, the sense of danger only increases. Imagery plays a large part here. Descriptions of ‘taxis honking wildly’ and a ‘formidable openmouthed beast forged in midroar’ all create an uneasy setting. But it’s foreshadowing that tethers this sense of unease to the story.
As soon as Lena and ‘our girl’ meet the group of boys, they are cast in a predatory light. ‘The young men outnumber the girls by two’ and how they form a ‘slowly closing semicircle’ bring to mind pack animals on the hunt, foreshadowing the grim group rape scene that follows.
These ominous descriptions only increase as the story reaches its crescendo. For instance, one of the boys says, ‘bitch, cool … through his slick teeth’ to Lena, as the group makes its way to the hotel room. This tells us everything we need to know about not just the boy but the whole group, without explicitly saying anything – an exemplary use of show, don’t tell.
Because of Vaye Watkins’s use of foreshadowing, the rape scene does not come as a surprise. That’s not the scene’s intention. Rather, the writing leads us to it, with a grim sense of inevitability, we know what is coming, and we read on anyway – such is the power of the writer’s prose.
To finish off, let’s take a look at how ‘Rondine al Nido’ might have played out if Vaye Watkins had made different literary choices, and the impact it would have had on our reading experience.
As we’ve seen, the preamble, future-tense story within a story adds plenty of character to ‘Rondine al Nido’. But what if Vaye Watkins had gone with a more conventional approach and omitted one of the two tenses’? What if this was a straight-forward, linear narrative? Which story perspective would you choose? Would you omit the thirty-year-old ‘our girl’s’ version, opting for a more conventional, linear narrative? Or would you have everything told from future ‘our girl’s’ perspective?
As I mentioned, the choice to use future and present tense is one of the most interesting aspects of this story, for me. But what if Vaye Watkins went in a different direction and told the entire story in the past tense? What impact would that have on the narrative, the rhythm, the pacing?
In both tenses, ‘our girl’ is the main character of ‘Rondine al Nido’. It’s her story she’s telling to ‘the sensible man’, and we see the world through her eyes. But Lena plays a huge part. After all, she is the direct victim of the rape. What if the story were told from her perspective? What do you think her opinion of ‘our girl’ is, and how does it change throughout the story?