Entire lifetimes, emotions packed into a few pages
Deborah Willis earned wide acclaim in 2009 with her debut collection “Vanishing and Other Stories,” a finalist for that year’s Governor General’s Award. More auspiciously, the collection garnered that rarest of literary accolade — a blurb from Alice Munro, who praised the work’s “emotional range and depth.”
While it’s become de rigueur to compare emerging short story practitioners with Munro, in the case of Willis, the comparison feels apt. Like Munro, Willis packs lifetimes into a scant few pages. And like Munro’s best work, these are stories concerned with the rueful backward glance; the almost archeological fascination with the lost ephemera of daily life.
Take “The Ark.” In this compelling comingof-age tale, Lea recalls a fraught childhood friendship with her emotionally distant husband, Tobiah. Willis’ pitch-perfect descriptions of Sunday school Bible stories, splintered church pews, Popsicle craft time and 1980s bowling alleys generate a palpable tension between painful flashback and nostalgic longing.
While Willis’ concerns often veer into pop culture — human colonies on Mars, reality TV — she has a gift for exploring the simmering power of teenage sexuality. Whether hooking up in the suburbs, skinny-dipping at summer camp, or trading shopping mall blowjobs for cash, her teenagers are in a perpetual struggle for autonomy, rapture, revelation or simply a way to pass the time.
As a whole, these are stories that eschew the tendency of many contemporary writers to call too much attention to acrobatic language or cool, ironic prose. Her writing is crisp, economical, unfailingly generous. These are compassionate stories, anchored in the belief that our lives achieve meaning through the stories we tell ourselves about our own experiences. Like Eddie, the recovering alcoholic who befriends a stray crow only to doubt his capacity to offer safe shelter. Or Hannah, whose complicated feelings for a friend lead to a troubling and daring string of neighbourhood break-ins.
It’s this off-kilter two-step between deviance and redemption, shame and self-acceptance that imbues the work with its rich emotional power. This is a fully mature, beautiful realized collection.
‘The Dark and Other Love Stories,’ by Deborah Willis, Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages, $29.95.