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Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind

Chavisa Woods

I was not always like this. Once I was a young woman with a family. My skin in summer was the colour of light sand and my hair as dark as dog stone. In Southern Alaska the stars at night burn a young girl’s eyes hotter than the Sun ever dreamed. My father was a simple man and my mother pretended to be a simple woman. We kept a small farm and much open land for no particular reason at all. "

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

It’s a rare thing, at least in my experience, to catch an author on the cusp of perfecting her style, at a stage where she’s still experimenting with voice and form. That’s how I found Chavisa Woods in this first collection. 

It was in some ways a frustrating experience, not helped by the fact that the book needed the attention of a good copyeditor; I found the frequent grammatical and spelling mistakes very distracting. Woods’ own tendency to pull readers from the story by side-tracking into meta-fiction, or simply metaphor, was infuriating precisely because the story was so damn good you wanted to stay inside it. In The Smell of Honey, she conjures a family in meltdown, children about to take drastic steps to cope with an abusive father. Her descriptions and the voices of the children are vivid and compelling, yet at a vital moment in the narrative she chooses to insert a passage about J.E. Amoore’s Stereochemical Theory. It’s hard not to resent the jolt this gives the reader. In Mr. Bunny, a powerful story of brutality and survival, Woods is unable to resist the temptation of a metaphor, "insects (lying) in a holocaust of quest", which has no business coming from the mind or mouth of her otherwise inarticulate heroine. 

Then comes a story like Never Enough, angry, sad, chaotic – at last it feels as if we’re getting the full measure of Woods’ true voice. Not for a second does she trip up while telling this story of a woman struggling against the prejudices of her family, friends and lover. 

A very few of the stories I found too consciously poised, pretentious even. Home, where the heroine is given the tag ‘the grown child’ with its two page detour into the properties of triangles, felt like a lecture in how to overload a story with analogy. Sundown in the Land of Lincoln infuriated me with its sudden switch to surrealism at the very end, which felt like an act of desperation on the part of an author struggling with an insoluble issue (in this case, the insidious nature of racism). Pathos played in the same territory, between realism and surrealism, and with an equivalently large issue at stake (organised religion) but it succeeded because Woods was faithful to the internal logic of the narrative and characters she’d created so well. 

The themes which repeat throughout the collection – incest, abuse, prejudice, sexuality, escape – tend to create an expectation in the reader; you feel after the first four stories that you know what’s coming next. So when Woods pulls out a story like The Bell Tower, the effect is electric. I won’t give away what’s so remarkable about this particular story but suffice to say it’s something I’ve never read before and doubt I’ll read again. 

I came last of all to The First Five Hundred Years of my Life, in some ways the story which surprised me most. It’s a terrifying concentration of Woods’ favourite themes, uncomfortable to read but utterly persuasive, a modern-day equivalent of The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 

I wish for Woods great things – and a great editor! – the strength to trust to her own voice and to resist the lure of gilding her raw prose with learning. I’m betting her second collection will be a knockout.

Read one of Chavisa's stories  on The Fiction Circus

Sarah Hilary won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a runner-up in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah's story, One Last Pick-Up. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee. Sarah blogs at http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com/

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Bejamin Percy
"Refresh, Refresh" 

PublisherFly By Night Press

Publication Date: January 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio:  Chavisa Woods writes poetry and short stories. This is her first published collection of fiction.

Read an interview with Chavisa Woods

Buy this book (used or new) from:

Author's recommended booksellers: Bluestockings 




And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US

What other reviewers thought:

GO magazine


Brooklyn Rail