When Oxford, Mississippi resident Mary Byrd Thornton receives word from a Virginia detective that the thirty-year-old investigation into the assault and murder of her half-brother, Stevie, is being reopened, she must travel to her hometown to confront her family’s heartbreaking past. Her current life doesn’t stop for the investigation, however. As Mary Byrd is preparing for the arduous journey through a killer storm, the daughter of Mary Byrd’s housekeeper, Evagreen, is arrested for the murder of Angie’s abusive husband.
In Flying Shoes, Lisa Howorth (co-owner of Oxford’s beloved institution Square Books) provides a smart, provocative glimpse into an often misunderstood culture. While the story of the search for Stevie’s killer plays backseat to the larger story of Mary Byrd’s life as a wife, mother, friend, and inhabitant of Oxford, the specter of Stevie’s loss, and Mary Byrd’s guilt over her possible connection to the crime, haunts the entire novel. The wide cast of deftly drawn characters–a homeless Vietnam vet named Teever, an insufferable but too-famous-to-be-ignored photographer, a hard-drinking love interest from an old but fallen family, and Mary Byrd’s dear friend Mann–offers a glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of Mississippi’s plantation-era past, which has deep-seated implications for racial relations in the present day.
Poignant and unputdownable, Flying Shoes is told with humor and verve. Highly recommended.
Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781620403013, June 17, 2014
Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of Golden State and The Year of Fog
Brian Sousa’s debut collection, Almost Gone, is a collection of intricately linked stories spanning four generations of Portuguese Americans. In the opening story, a young man named Scott has gone to Brazil, attempting to escape his marriage and his grief over the loss of a child. Over the course of the stories, we hear from Paulo, Scott’s father, and from Paulo’s father, Nuno, Nuno’s wife Helena, and, in a surprising turn, Helena’s first love, Mateo. Grounding many of the stories is Catarina, an enigmatic young woman who arrives in America without any English, and takes up residence in a small house next door to Helena and Nuno. There, she becomes the object of desire not only of the married Paulo, but also of his aging father Nuno, who watches her daily through the blinds. Nuno’s longing for the much younger Catarina is one of the many manifestations of solitude and unrequited love in this moving, tenderly orchestrated book.
If you put this collection down and come back to it, it’s easy to forget how all of the stories intersect, but one should resist the urge to flip back and forth, trying to tie everything together. That’s because it all does come together in the end, beautifully, and part of the pleasure of reading Almost Gone is the flash of recognition one feels throughout. You feel entirely immersed in a bullfight in Spain, which seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the book, only to come to realize how this event leads to others. Time feels compressed within each story, but the time of the book as a whole is expanisve despite the relative brevity of the collection (the book weighs in at well under 200 pages). In the final story, we return to the beach with Scott, to the pivotal event that has led him to flee his wife and his life back in the U.S. The story is painful in its distillation of emotion, and, like the best of these stories, hovers between suggestion and straight narrative, leaving the reader with a feeling of uncertainty.
In the style of Peter Orner’s accomplished Esther Stories, Sousa manages to make almost every story a stand-alone piece, while constructing a whole that feels, in the end, like an exquisitely rendered novel.
The Next Time You See Me, the debut novel by Holly Goddard Jones, is a literary mystery in the tradition of Kate Atkinson. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in the woods by a misfit middle-schooler named Emily Houchens. The novel’s plot hinges on Emily’s strange reaction to the body; rather than telling the police or her parents, she keeps the knowledge to herself, relishing the secret and hoping to share it with the boy in her class on whom she has a crush, a wealthy kid named Christopher whose repeated cruelty to Emily is the source of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book.
Soon, we meet young schoolteacher Susanna, the only person in the small factory town who believes foul play may be involved in the disappearance of her sister, Ronnie, who has a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker. Susanna, who is suffering through an unhappy marriage, isn’t an easy character to like, but she is believable in her complexity. While attempting to get the police to pay attention to her sister’s disappearance, Susanna takes her bullied student, Emily, under her protection.
The novel is told in a shifting third person point of view. In addition to Emily and Susanna, we hear from Emily’s neighbor, a quiet factory worker named Wyatt, as well as from the lonely middle-aged nurse who cares for him and the detective whom Susanna regrets turning down for a date a decade ago, when they were in high school. While this is a small town, the residents, each trapped in his or her own private struggles, are not always aware of what links them; their failure to truly understand one another gives this the feel not of an idyllic small town but rather of a community falling apart at the seams, its deterioration at once physical, economic, and moral.
Goddard Jones manages just the right amount of creepiness, mixed with strong characterizations. While there is a mystery at the heart of the novel, it’s not a whodunnit, as Goddard lets the reader know pretty early on not only that Ronnie is the body in the woods, but also who killed her. The mystery lies, instead, in the characters’ unusual reactions to their own suffering. Goddard Jones excels in peeling back the layers of human nature, so that, while our heart breaks for a troubled child, we also understand why she is an outcast, and while we are aware of the decomposing body in the woods, we nonetheless are able, in some way, to feel the sorrow of the murderer’s own life falling apart.
Goddard Jones has published one previous book, the story collection Girl Trouble, and she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I was delighted upon reading her bio at the back of the book to discover that we share something in common beyond our Southern upbringings and our path from short story collection to literary mystery; in 2013, Goddard Jones received the Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which I also had the good fortune to receive in 2009. I highly recommend The Next Time You See Me and am looking forward to Goddard Jones’s next book.
Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and the forthcoming novel Golden State, as well as two other novels. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.
Jeff Backhaus’s beautiful debut novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, opens with a man locked inside a room, unable to come out except for in the middle of the night, while his wife is sleeping. Ever since losing his young son in an accident which he feels he should have prevented, Thomas Tessler has been hikikomori–a common enough condition in Japan for which Americans have no name. Megumi, a young woman from Japan whose own grief and alienation prompted her move to New York City three years before, is called upon to help him. Megumi’s job: to coax him out of his room, so that he can have a life again.
I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and decide never to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke, it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out.
When Thomas’s wife, Silke, pleads with Megumi to save her husband, Megumi reluctantly agrees to visit the apartment, planning to only go once. Finding herself drawn to Thomas, whose plight is similar to that of her dead brother, Megumi continues to return, day after day, until finally, Thomas opens the door a crack. As their intimacy grows, Megumi begins to realize that she wants more than to simply be Thomas’s savior. There is a kind of innocence to the eroticism that unfolds between them, and while Silke cannot help but suspect that there is more to Megumi’s process than merely talking with her husband, there is nothing torrid or cheap about this love triange. Backhaus manages to create genuine empathy for Thomas, Megumi, and Silke, and to make readers feel the separate and devastating loss that each of them is experiencing
Beckhaus’s writing is spare and beautiful. If at times simplistic, it is the simplicity of a very young woman whose unique talents have thrust her into a very complex situation. What I love about this novel is that there is never too much on the page; there is always just enough. There is a lightness to the novel, despite the characters’ enduring sadness–a lightness not of mood but of atmosphere. Imbued with the sense of quiet and delicacy that permeates the bestof Japanese fiction, Hikikoromi and the Rental Sister is an extremely promising debut. Put Jeff Backhaus at the top of your list of writers to watch.
Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.
This week, Yuvi Zalkow interviewed Thaisa Frank for The Rumpus. They met at the bar of the Hotel Rex, where Frank, author most recently of Enchantment, talked about where stories come from, among other things. I’ve long admired Frank, beginning with her story collection A Brief History of Camouflage, have often taught her work in creative writing classes, and in recent years have been honored to get to know her.
In the intro, Zalkow says that the interview itself felt a bit like being inside a Thaisa Frank story. If you’ve read her work, you’ll have a vague and disturbing sense of what that means. When stepping into a Thaisa Frank story, it’s almost impossible not to feel displaced, as if you’ve walked into a dark, empty bar and have brought none of the right equipment, not to mention the right frame of mind, to encounter whatever it is you’re about to encounter. When I first came across her stories in a San Francisco bookshop fifteen years ago, I felt as though I’d fallen through the rabbit hole. The stories in Enchantment, magical in every way, unexpected at every turn, seem to come from a different universe.
Read on for some of the highlights from the interview, which you’ll find in its entirety on The Rumpus.
On where stories come from:
I often feel there’s a triggering event that makes me want to start a story. There is a title often, but the title contains the stuff of the story. The title is like a packed piñata, even if it’s made of iron and I have to beat it and beat it for the stuff to come out.
On what happens when the story turns out not to be anything like the story you intended to write:
And it’s the failure of the intended story that usually guarantees, if not success, then the forward motion of the final story.
Old-fashioned surrealism is where you take one or two extraordinary things and have them in a world that obeys all the laws of reality…I’m also very interested in classic surrealism, where you take one thing that really couldn’t happen —like how Kafka took a guy and turned him into a bug—but after that, everything proceeds pretty logically.
On what’s missing from the teaching of fiction
…one of the things we don’t have in teaching fiction is a true poetics of fiction—a way of talking about fiction without getting tangled up in the content.