I’ve had great luck with short story collections this year, having read and loved The Secret Lives of Church Ladies and The Office of Historical Corrections. And actually, looking at those, let me be even more specific and say that short story collections by Black women authors have rocked my 2021 so far. So really, seeing the reviews of this debut collection talking about how fire it was turned grabbing it from the library into a no brainer. Plus, I loved having the audiobook version to listen along to (thanks, Libro.fm for the ALC) – the narrator was fantastic for bringing these stories to spoken life.
As always with collections, here are my thoughts/reactions to each individual story (overall thoughts at the end):
Milk Blood Heat – What an opener! This titular short story starts the collection off with a dark, sort of oppressive (like, in the way that super warm, humid weather feels heavy) bang. The personification of the peculiar emotionality and morbid curiosity of puberty that seems forever and overwhelming when you’re inside it is just stellar, in the most perfect, almost perverse but not quite, way. It’s that period of ominous “growing up” that most of us get through, but some of succumb to, as decisions that are meant only to test the boundaries have unintended permanent consequences (because while the emotions guiding the actions are strong and present, the ability to see further ahead isn’t yet developed). Whew. “Before thirteen, she hadn’t realized that empty was a thing you could carry. But who put it there? Sometimes she wonders if she will ever be rid of it, and sometimes she never wants to give it back. It is a thing she owns.”
Feast – Oh this is a tough one, topically. Major content warning for miscarriage. And the way Moniz writes about the pain and disassociation and (self) guilt and (self) blame and, in this case, the mental derailing after a loss like that, of a loss of something so deeply anticipated and wanted and connected to, of not having any idea how to get back/get over/get through, is wrecking. And I am not sure I can articulate why, but the imagery with the octopus at the end, the idea of self-devouring to erase the damage, was incredibly visceral to read. So powerfully, horribly, well written.
Tongues – Oh I was into this story. A sort of modern-day reforming of the myth of Eve as the fall of man, that pinning of blame on the “fallen woman,” the “temptress,” the seductress to be feared because the power she has is so great as to be impossible to resist. And so, she becomes the devil in the stories. But here, though there are arguments to be made that perhaps some of Zey’s acts are truly…devilish? immoral?…I love the way she takes back and wields and owns that female power. F that religious BS and the fear inherent in it that turns so quickly/easily to hate and oppression and suppression. Plus, I have a very large and very personal soft spot for intensely protective older sisters. “It is the nature of light to illuminate, and she can’t, like so many forget what she’s seen.”
The Loss of Heaven – This was a little built of a slower, more subtle build than the first stories and felt like it had all the hallmarks of a classic tragedy. Our MC is basically hitting an emotional rock bottom in all sorts of ways, as onlookers give that sort of lip service to empathy while internally seeming to just be grateful it isn’t happening to them (and, perhaps, judging the way it’s being handled…). There’s just a loneliness in the pages of this story that is stark and stabbing. Also, there is a handling of end of life/terminal illness, of an inability to deal with emotional reactions to impending loss (and speeding up the loss itself, as a result), of finding oneself truly alone in the world, that is heartbreaking.
The Hearts of Our Enemies – This mother-daughter relationship focused story really delves into the two as separate people, making their individual judgements and mistakes in regards to the other. There’s a great moment from each, one as the mother realizes the real moment to protect the daughter slipped by as she was trying to atone for a lesser moment, and one as the daughter let’s go of the derision towards her mother as she realizes she’s just a person living her own life for the first and only time, that were particularly authentic for me as a reader. And there’s some petty revenge that doesn’t actually fix a disgusting and inappropriate action in any way, but was very satisfying in the way only petty revenge can be and I did love that. This was a tough read in a subtle-leaning way, but perhaps more powerful for that. “Frankie wonders if […] this near universal disdain a daughter can feel for a mother might be necessary for the appreciation that comes later, if this is what it takes to love.”
Outside the Raft – Oh there was some real darkness in this one, the darkness that children have and exhibit, knowing perhaps that they’re stepping over lines but not having that ability or wherewithal to pull back. It’s a step over the line that some adults, when it comes down to a split-second decision or a decision made under duress, still absolutely make, with that basic instinct of youth and survival. Anyways, there was a real tensity and shadow in this one, with an allusion to the future effects of the many forms that childhood traumas can take. “She must have known that light could not exist without darkness; no good without evil. How might it have been if we’d told her you could be both things and still be loved?” / “I don’t know how to apologize for wanting to save my own life.”
Snow – The way that, sometimes, a chance encounter with a stranger that mixes things up is exactly what it takes to make you realize what you might have/be overlooking in your own life. And this little supernatural spin on it, not for real, but that sort of “knowing” insight from that stranger, seeing something you think you’re hiding and making you take it out and examine it, was so well-written here. Also, a very recognizable vibe for anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant. “Harder was facing that I was too impatient or lazy to understand the work of love; behind that, my glowing fear, my almost certainty, that I wasn’t worth the effort.”
Necessary Bodies – I’m not sure that I’ve ever read something where I’ve identified so much with a narrator, honestly. In a very real way, Billie’s internal debate and dialogue and thought processes about having a child are so recognizable to me. And though there may be some differences in the specifics in some cases, and the reality Billie finds herself in pressed to make a final decision one way or the other, I honestly don’t remember another female character articulating anything even remotely this close to my own feelings about becoming a mother. Just…this story really made me feel seen, internally, about my reasonings/feelings about becoming (or more accurately, not becoming) a mother in a way I’ve never experience before and, even though it was a pretty “normal” life story, it’s going to stick with me a long time because of that…
Thicker Than Water – This story, about two siblings on a road trip to drive their father’s ashes to where he wants them to be buried, started seeming like a pretty straightforward forced-proximity to fix a rift situation. But it takes a very dark turn when you start to realize the rift is not of their own making, but all comes back to the father whose ashes they are traveling with…and it’s a doozy. (CW: references to child physical and sexual abuse.) Both subtle and palpable, this one is tough to read for a number of reasons, but a piece that really got me, that was a less obvious addition to the trauma, came in considering that way this sibling relationship, that could have (should have) been a source of comfort/support, was so drastically ruined and stolen.
Exotics – Ummm, excuse me is this micro-short story about what I think it’s about?! Because if so, holy shit. There’s a social commentary on what too much power/privilege and dehumanization of anyone without it does to a person. Yeeesh. (Also, like, how is this the second story I’ve read in the past year that has or alludes to cannibalism?? I’m looking at you, Earthlings. Hopefully this isn’t a new trend…)
An Almanac of Bones – A meditation on motherhood, girlhood, and learning to live with/as who you are, and who others are, to finish out the collection. Probably not my favorite of the collection, but there is definitely an understated fire in the characters and their relationships with each other that does leave you with some nice heat to close out on. “You learn to be who you are, or you die as someone else. It’s simple.”
Well, while this collection didn’t strike me quite as deeply, overall, as the ones I mentioned in my intro, this was still a really, really good set of stories. It was really interesting that, when taken together, these stories are a fascinating look at moments in time across an entire lifespan, from youth to older middle age; a sort of survey of characters at different points throughout a life. And though no single story is a particular standout as far as plot, at least for me, there was a sort of piercing gaze from each of the slices/moments that exposed the inner turmoil and reality of “normal” that makes a reader (well, this reader, at least) feel very seen within their own everyday-ness. That subtle sort of insight carried a fine power that settled heavily over me as a reader, leaving me trapped inside a dense aura of all the stickiness inherent in real, regular lives. I don’t know if I’m doing a great job explaining it, but I cannot believe that a reader would be able to get through this collection without a clear and vibrant connection to at least one of the stories’ characters. And that representation and authenticity is definitely something to applaud. I really enjoyed this debut and look forward to reading more from Moniz in the future.