The author’s great strength, evident in both this book and in Fates and Furies, is her brilliant use of descriptive language. In “Ghosts and Empties,” the first story, a woman recounts the walks she takes each night while her husband puts their two boys to bed. She is dismayed to have become “a woman who yells,” and she hopes her walks will counter that. Some of my favorite descriptions:
- “On my nighttime walks, the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I’m the silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music.”
- She speaks of moving to the South, “with its boiled peanuts and its Spanish moss dangling like armpit hair.”
- She describes the people she encounters: “There’s an elegant, tall woman who walks a Great Dane the color of dryer lint; I am afraid that the woman is unwell because she walks rigidly, her face pulsing as if intermittently electrified by pain. I sometimes imagine how, should I barrel around a corner to find her slumped on the ground, I would drape her over the dog, smack his withers, and watch as he, with his great dignity, carried her home.”
Several of the stories feature a woman with two young sons and while I don’t imagine these stories are autobiographical, she surely shares some traits with that character. The character is an intensely loving mother, is quite prickly, full of anxiety, who readily admits that she fails miserably at many mother-jobs, such as remembering to make dinner. The stories vary greatly from each other, though almost all have some connection to Florida, to great effect. Though I am not generally an enthusiastic short story reader, their similarities made the transitions from one to the next more pleasing.
One passage that charmed me was this one featuring the woman with two sons, set on Halloween:
All day today and yesterday she has been reading the early naturalist William Bartram, who traveled through Florida in 1774; because of him, she forgot Halloween. She’s most definitely in love with that dead Quaker. This is not to say that she is no longer in love with her husband; she is, but after sixteen years together, perhaps they have blurred at the edges of each other’s vision. She says to her dog, who is beside her at the window watching the candle man, One day you’ll wake up and realize your favorite person has turned into a person-shaped cloud. The dog ignores her, because the dog is wise.
Although my descriptions and quotes have been of the gentle sort, dreadful things are at the center of some of these stories. Several have horrific storms, one follows a graduate student as she becomes hopeless and homeless, one features a woman terribly injured who must depend on her two young children for help. I found this collection to be the perfect medium for these explorations. She is a powerful storyteller.
Thanks for this book, Will.
Lauren Groff, Florida, Riverhead Books, 2018, 275 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.