Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
Church Booty deals pithily and often hilariously with the pull between church devotions and earthly concerns in the Deep South. All the stories benefit from a rich, melodious Southern voice, the perfect vehicle for tales of how God moves in mysterious ways. A particular favourite was the title story, which layered absurdity over absurdity to almost Wodehousian effect. In this mad world Riddly Ryan's attraction for mother Serena, “swinging them wide, wide hips like they was a dangerous weapon”, is not just a clever way for him to escape gaol, it is also a genuine moment of human warmth.
Yet despite a real gift for comic timing, Manley seems only too aware that the line between tragedy and farce is a slender one; this alluring Southern voice can make a reader weep as well as laugh. Gucci Junior in Iraq starts with a delicious set up – Accolade, relaxing at home free from “foundation garments that no woman was meant to endure”, is caught up in an intervention into Elegeen's romantic arrangements. However, an escalating domestic fracas is interrupted by the arrival of two army men come to tell Elegeen that her son has been killed in Iraq. Accolade intercepts them, takes the notification and, with a gesture that is both futile and, astonishingly, hopeful, sets fire to it. “If them same words ... burn up before anybody could read them, then it might be like they ain't never been wrote up in the first place. Like God done changed his mind. I know I change my mind all the time. And if I got it in me to change my mind, then God got it too.”
Manley's characters have faith but it is not blind; many stories question the texture and purpose of belief, probing and picking at it like an open wound. In On the Bus the narrator worries at all the unwitting wrongs she has committed, wondering at the bright uncomplicated faith of the Elvis worshippers around her as she travels to her daughter, Hope, in hospital. “Being a white mother with a black child is the main thing I've been for as long as I can remember,” she confides. This is one of several stories preoccupied with racial tensions in America, specifically a white mother with a mixed race child. The story is twinned with the collection's finale, Intensive Care. The narrator has reached the hospital where Hope lies in a coma, “that silent thing they had made up to look like my daughter”. There is no shred of false comfort, no convenient awakening. The narrator and Hope's father, Calvin – these “mis-matched people” – once again face unthinking prejudice when a nurse initially refuses to let them see their daughter, unaware they are her parents. “The tears keep coming but I just stay quiet watching that man and that child, thinking how we all coulda loved each other so much if we only knew how.”
There is a quiet devastation to this ending, which carries the weight of America's divided past, a legacy that these characters still struggle against. Yet I found hope within the sadness. A woman's blazing love for her daughter, the kindnesses between friends, tenderness for an old lover – these are the fragile human connections that overcome appalling prejudices. Manley was able to depict these tiny moments with warmth and humanity; I was left with something to believe in.
Read a short story from this collection on r.kv.r.y.com.
Publication Date: 2008
First collection?: Yes
Awards: Runner up, Tartts Third Annual First Fiction Award
Author bio: Carol Manley has, in no particular order, a BA in Computer Science, an MA in English, three children and two grandchildren.
Read an interview with Carol Manley
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