Reviewed by Vickie Fang
Kate Blackwell’s debut collection of short stories takes us to the South, but it’s not Flannery O’Connor’s outsized Gothic South, nor is it the catty ladies and lush magnolias South of popular entertainment. It’s just a warm, intimately described world, a little removed from rat race ambitions and rapidly changing pop culture. Like the writing itself, the setting doesn’t intrude, but instead allows the characters to be individuals, slowly discovering themselves in the crucible of ancient dramas: death of a loved one, aging, childbirth, adultery, changing expectations.
The discoveries they make are all different. Some are venerable Southern tales, told with a fresh voice. In The Secret Lives of Peonies, a woman who was raised by a hostile, sex-shaming mother finds that an affair she describes as “healthy, human, even obscurely right” hasn’t been right at all. Instead of expanding her world, she loses even her great love of its everyday beauty. Mother’s humiliating voice reaches across the years in triumphant reproach.
In The Queen of May, we see the complex relationship between a wealthy old white woman and her favorite black waiter. It’s unbalanced and artificial, redolent of centuries-old injustices and yet still marked by genuine fondness on one side and genuine kindness on the other. While the drunk old lady is being driven home by the waiter, her lonely daughter-in-law dances naked on the lawn, watched from the shadows by her own husband. “She had no idea what would happen when the dance was over – what would he say? What would she? . . . She let that thought go as she went on turning and weaving across the lawn, dancing only for him whose clapping hands echoed the beating in her bare and hopeful breast.” The losses are coming for both these faded women, but they hold on to what moments they can, even when they can’t even imagine a future.
Other stories struggle with the limits of understanding and action. In one of my favorites, Heartbeatland, a young widow slowly discovers the richness of the life her husband had lived outside of their marriage, as she begins to admit to herself how impoverished their actual home life was. In the simple, intimate language of a domestic story, Heartbeatland is a profoundly moving meditation on the nature of human consciousness. In Carpe Diem, we begin to wonder how much better off we are even if we do understand. In this story, a middle aged nursery school teacher sees the man a lonely little boy will become and understands in an instant the childhood wounds her own lover still carries.
Every story in this entire collection is lively, beautiful, and rich with meaning. Perhaps most importantly of all, they are imbued with great love for the people who inhabit them. Whether Blackwell is telling us stories of lived or imagined lives, she is clearly championing the value of people who might otherwise be overlooked. As she says in My First Wedding, “I regret that my own daughters never knew her and would not now easily understand if I tried to tell them about her. They would find her life banal, I am sure, and as distant from their own as those intimate interiors by Hals and Vermeer. I, however, have learned to appreciate the beauty of still lives, and it saddens me to think they will be lost. For who will remember women like my mother, my aunt, and Augusta? Who will remember any of us who live so hidden, so far from anything?”