Learning How to Drown (Cat Hellisen)

Learning How to Drown is a short story collection by Cat Hellisen.
[I got this book from a LibraryThing Early Reviewer Give-Away.]
Finished on: 5.11.2018

Learning How to drown collects short stories spanning about 10 years of Hellisen’s writing. Each story is shortly commented on by the author. It’s a very nice collection that does make me curious about her novels, too, though I didn’t love it so much that I’m running out to get them right this second. The comments to the stories explained too much and gave too little context for my taste, but the context we did get was interesting. In short, a collection worth reading and I’ll keep my eye out for her novels.

Read more about each of the stories after the jump.

The Girls Who Go Below

Milly and Lucy love to practice drowning in the lake near their aunt Vera’s house until one day a boy joins them and unbalances the two sisters.

I don’t know the fairy tale this is based on, but the story is very atmospheric and retains a fairy-tale-ish feeling. The change in the sibling relationship from one extreme to the other went a little fast for me, but other than that, it’s a cool story.


Many years ago, angels started appearing on earth, doing nothing until they fell apart. The visitations have stopped and The Museum of Angelic Artefacts is nothing grand, run by a single family. But then the daughter Cam starts behaving strangely.

I’m not sure if I followed everything about the angels in the story, but I loved the idea here. And I also enjoyed that the story ends more positively than I expected.

The Subtle Thief

Gaz, Jerry and Mark have always been a trio, so of course they went and explored the one of the Fallen cities together. It’s there that Gaz discovers the word that stops the world.

The Subtle Thief feels like a story that won’t stay very long with me, but I did enjoy reading it and I always appreciate timey-wimey stuff, so that’s definitely a plus here.

Jack of Spades, Reversed

Attery and Louise are making their way through the jungle towards New Londinium, but they are changing and will soon turn into something else entirely.

I very much loved this story – the transformations, the aliens, but above all the solution with the escape/sanctuary. Very nice.

Mother, Crone, Maiden

Ilven is a girl of House Malker, a house that has always been ruled by visions, with many Saints. That’s why her mother teaches her how to tell the future.

In the comment about this story, Hellisen writes that this is a prequel story to her novel When the Sea is Rising Red, which I don’t know. But I’m curious now because the story gripped me completely. The ending is a little depressing – all the more reason to read on and find out whether the novel ends on less of a downer.

This Reflection of Me

In a bone house, a servant waits for her master and the new girl he brings.

This (very short) story is a take on Bluebeard that I found very intersting because it introduces another player whose role is entirely unclear, but extremely interesting.

Counter Curse

In a castle, there is a man who works with animals and who has a talent to understand them. His daughter Freya has magic of her own. But everything changes when her mother finds Inga, another servant with magic.

This is another prequel story for a novel, this time Beastkeeper. Again, I’m curious now. A fairy tale atmosphere, a bit of queerness and nice magic. What more could I ask for?

Mouse Teeth

When she was a little girl, Elsie set a trap for a tooth mouse and killed it, so when she loses all her teeth as a teenager, she knows the reason for it. But she got married regardless. While her husband brings a daily sacrifice to god, Elsie turns to the English sisters, witches, with a request.

With this story, I’m not sure about the ending, but I did enjoy the rest. Tooth mice and witches are great per se, but I also really enjoyed that the exoticization was turned on its head here: it’s the English witches in South Africa that are exotic here, meaning that for once, the European perspective isn’t centered.

A Sun Bright Prison

Nadena has always learned that selkies stink. Half-breeds, too. But Ridlea proves her stereotypes wrong – and then some.

I liked that we get a male selkie here, but other than that the story didn’t work that well for me. It just left me cold. And I’m not sure why Ridlea would bother with Nadena at all.


When her sister Claire disappeared, left her, a hole remains in Alison’s life. But what happened to Claire may be more complicated than Alison knows.

Serein is definitely one of the strongest stories in the collection: the dissolution angle was interesting and well developed over the course of the story. The ambivalent sister relationship was also very engaging, giving the story the necessary emotional weight.

Dreaming Monsters

Janice and her family are traveling on the Long Road to gather dreams, drawn by manticores. It’s best to stay on the Long Road, unless you have a talent like Janice and can navigate the dreams.

This story is part of a huge universe (I’m not sure if that huge universe was captured more extensively, though another story in this collection – The Face of Jarry – is set in it as well), and it was maybe a little too much for a short story. It felt very dense in any case. I liked the set-up, though, and the relationship between the two women (queer love stories FTW), but contrary to the other two stories here that pointed to larger stories, I didn’t feel like I necessarily wanted to spend more time in this world.

Golden Wing, Silver Eye

Pal-em-Rasha is famous for its clockwork creatures and Bee makes some of the best of them. And she is working on something grand right now, despite the city being in mourning.

This story is all about the twist, and it works so obviously towards something that I felt like I was missing information or background or something. Unfortunately that took away from my enjoyment of the story, although it did give me another queer couple.

I’m Only Going Over

Ben meets Jordan at a party. Things get strange.

This story is so short that Hellisen doesn’t really have time to develop anything. Nevertheless it works pretty well and the coffee drinking moment is beautiful.

The Face of Jarry

She keeps stumbling upon Jarry , not knowing what it means or what it is. But Jarry won’t let go of her.

Despite being set in the same universe as Dreaming Monsters, this story feels much more contained and therefore worked a little better on its own for me. I did not see that ending coming and found it very creepy in a very nice way.

The Worme Bridge

Sanette’s mother and her brother are ill, and Sanette is at risk of becoming ill herself. But she still has all her toes for now.

This story is filled with body horror that works very nicely – the slow dissolution and the self-harm are very well executed and made me sweat. I wouldn’t have needed the religious angle here, but it was okay.

This is How We Burn

Lindela doesn’t believe in magic, but nevertheless he finds himself curious about a flyer promising spells.

This story is basically Orpheus in gay and meaner in its punishment for the disrespect of death. I found it cool, but it didn’t blow me away.

A Green Silk Dress and a Wedding-Death

Héloise works hard in the harbour, gutting fish to make sure her little brother Gwil has food. But one day something else gets caught.

I liked the story, although I did have complicated feelings about the magical healing of the disability here. And those feelings are only complicated because it’s not an outright healing, but rather an “finally in the right circumstances” kind of thing. The River Spirit was very nice. The story feels a bit like a precursor for The Shape of the Water. Unfortunately in her comment on the story, Hellisen uses the world “mongrel” (referring to a human) which I found very disturbing.

Summarizing: a nice collection.

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