…I felt achy the rest of the day – the ache that comes with the helplessness of endings, any ending.
This is Not an Accident by April Wilder
224 pages, Viking Adult, January 2014
I was never much of a short-story person. I like meatier things. I like to know more about characters, and I like to know their whole story, not just a snippet that a short story gives you.
I have, however, been very lucky with short story collections lately. Either authors are stepping up their games or I’m getting old-age short-attention-span-syndrome.
April Wilder’s This is Not an Accident is eight short stories and a novella. It started slow for me; I was a little worried where it was going. Then it got better, but not only did it get better, how much better it got made me reevaluate the earlier stories and realize they were actually kind of beautiful, as well…and now, looking them over, I don’t know what I originally didn’t relate to in the earlier stories. She absolutely won me over.
Her theme, overall, is the fragility of relationships…how we destroy each other, how we destroy ourselves, how we try so hard to hold it all together and how it slips through our fingers, sometimes without us even noticing it. Each of her characters is more broken than the next, and more relatable. I know these people. I have been these people, I’ve been surrounded by these people, I’ve loved these people, I’ve been destroyed by these people.
If I told you about each story, and why I loved each one, we’d be here much too long, so just let me briefly tell you, as briefly as I can, about some of the things that hit me right in the chest, that made me gasp a little, that brought quick hot tears to my eyes and made me say “yes” and “I know” and “oh” and “oh.”
In “We Were Champions,” a revelation about her past makes the narrator’s boyfriend both explode and implode at the same time, while the narrator herself is mired in the memories; they’re dangerous, those memories, and they’re an unsafe place to stay, but she thinks, “It’s strange how much you miss and overlook, how little you know about the one you want most,” and my heart caught at this. We’re all mysteries to one another, aren’t we? No matter how well we know one another, how close we are…there’s a mystery there. We’ll never know all there is to know there. There’s always that space.
In “It’s a Long Dang Life,” we meet Laney, who married the wrong man and was lucky enough to find the right one, the one she’d lost, many years later. She loves her children, and her grandchildren, more than her own life – she’s given up everything for them – but this man. This man is hers. “…he will drink too much again and he will play too hard, he will pick them up…hold them screaming in midair, and some day he’ll play until he’s not playing anymore. And Laney won’t stop him. She never will. If he asked her, if it’s what he needed to make it through the night, she would deliver them to him in her own arms.”
We love until we have nothing left, and then we keep loving; we love until we are empty shells of ourselves, and if we’re lucky, we find someone who loves us back just as hard…and sometimes we make it work between us, don’t we? Sometimes we don’t destroy one another. Sometimes we collide and it just…works.
In “Three Men,” Jess thinks back to three broken men who have affected her – her father, her husband, and her brother. Her father, with his war stories that mutate, depending on who he’s telling them to; her husband, who she is leaving (or is he leaving her?) who can’t dress himself, who always has a ripped seam, a stained shirt, a frayed tie; and her brother, a child stuntman who has never grown up. “His wife told Jess once he has to drink until one in order to write his name legibly. But write this name on what?”
Each story so full of sorrow and pain and darkness that your heart hurts with every word; but even as you’re hurting, you have to read more. You need to know what happens to these people. Because these people are you, and these are the people you love, and you have a vested interest in their lives, somehow; if only they can make it work, maybe you can, too. Maybe you’ll be alright.
We’re all broken, and we all destroy one another and destroy ourselves…but sometimes we find ourselves, right before things go too far. Sometimes there’s a way out.
(For the most beautiful review of this book, and the reason I knew I had to read it, please read Cassie’s review here; she does it much more justice than I can. She’s who I aspire to be in my reviewing, this woman. And also just a damn amazing lady, to boot.)
Except you can’t judge a book by its cover. Whether or not this story has a happy ending depends, of course, on who is reading it. Whether you are a wolf or a girl. A girl or a monster or both. Not everyone in a story gets a happy ending. Not everyone who reads a story feels the same way about how it ends. And if you go back to the beginning and read it again, you may discover it isn’t the same story you thought you’d read. Stories shift their shape.
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
400 pages; Viking; October 2008
Having read Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen earlier this year (and loving it) and then taking out from the library her Magic for Beginners, and realizing, “Hey, I already read this, and that’s why I started using Goodreads and reviewing, so things like this wouldn’t happen, numbskull,” I treated myself to the last collection of her stories I hadn’t read, Pretty Monsters.
First, look up there at that cover. That is one gorgeous cover.
Then, you get this inside the front flap: this totally made me laugh. Both Tennessee Fainting Goats AND possibly carnivorous sofas!
OK. This book is billed as YA. The only thing YA about this book is that the protagonists of the stories are…well, young adults. That’s it. That’s the tenuous connection to the world of YA there is in these pages. Really, this is a book of beautifully-written fantasy/horror/suspense short stories whose main characters happen to be younger. If you’re one of those “ZOMG NO NO NOT YA!” people (and if you are, what’s wrong with you? Have you READ any YA recently? It’s WONDERFUL!) that should assuage you.
Where to begin. Well, for any Link fans, there are some repeats here. Actually, 8 of the stories are previously published; two in her two previous collections, the rest in other story collections. The titular story is new to this collection. It’s also brilliant. Utterly, completely brilliant. (And it’s the one with the Tennessee Fainting Goats in it. Coincidence? YOU DECIDE.)
This collection has my favorite of her stories thus far in it – “The Specialist’s Hat,” from Stranger Things Happen (also known as the story that gave this jaded horror aficionado the creeping willies, no small feat) which I totally read again – I like it just that much. It also has “The Faery Handbag” in it, which I read years ago in a short-story collection and loved; I was glad to rediscover it and re-read it here.
From the new-to-me stories, though – well, let’s work our way up to “Pretty Monsters,” which bowled me over so much I had to take a breather before starting to write this, ok?
They’re all beautiful. They’re at different levels of beauty, but Link has such a way with words that I just want to immerse myself in her nouns and verbs and pronouns and descriptors and just bathe myself in them. Her characters are lost, and broken, but fierce. They glitter like window-glass left over from a morning car-crash in the afternoon rush-hour traffic; left over, forgotten, but still just a little deadly, still warning you off. They speak like we do, and they speak like fairy-tale creatures, and they speak like they’re divining the future, all at once. You want to know them, but you’re a little afraid to know them.
“The Wizards of Perfil” finds cousins split apart; one sold to be a servant to mysterious wizards who live in a swamp, the other left behind with his aunt and younger cousins. Somehow, their bond only intensifies with distance, and each of them learn things about themselves they hadn’t known before; the one who was weak learns to be strong, and the one that was strong learns that weakness isn’t a bad thing, sometimes. “Monster” tied bullying and death and gaybashing and loneliness all into a ball and set it in a desolate campground not far from a summer camp; you wonder who the true monster is. Do we ever know who the true monster is?
And finally, “Pretty Monsters.” If Link saved this story for the one new to the collection, and for last – it shows she knows what she’s doing. We didn’t know who the true monster was in “Monster” and we don’t know who the true monster is here, either. It’s a story within a story within a story; there is a girl in love with the boy who keeps saving her, there is an amusement park slowly sinking into a field, there are two sisters tied to a tree in the dark, there is something scratching at the door, and did you know goats sneeze to warn their pack – be it caprine or human – of upcoming danger?
The goats sneeze a lot in this story. You can never quite tell who the monsters are when they wear pretty faces to cover their true selves.
I’ll read anything Link writes. She understands what I need from a story: poetry and danger and love and mystery and beauty. You don’t always find that all in one place. When you do, you have to hold onto it. Even when it’s dark, and there might be monsters.