Reviewed by Tania Hershman
I have been reading and enjoying mostly experimental and magical realist fiction recently and when I began Mary Miller's collection, I didn't know what to expect. When encountering a writer for the first time, you proceed warily, as if in a foreign country whose inhabitants may or may not be hostile. Despite my disdain for labels and genres, I look for signs I can recognise so that I can say "Ah yes, this is...." and then I can relax a little, knowing at least what the weather is likely to be around here. With Mary Miller's book (which, I must mention, is a "minibook", pocket-sized, and with a gorgeous, rose-tinted vintage-style cover) I quickly realised that I was in realist territory, that nothing bizarre or otherworldy was going to happen.
And yet, to say this is to vastly underestimate Miller's skills. The irony of the title is that the worlds of her characters are minuscule, and yet from within these apparently suffocating lives she paints a rich and oftentimes stunning picture of, to overuse a cliche, the human condition, with all its ambiguity and refusal to submit.
The eleven stories collected here have much in common: all but one are told in the first person, the most intimate point of view. All the protagonists are female. And there is a uniformity of voice across all the stories that suggests that all these characters could in fact be the same character at different ages and stages in life, but for slight biographical alterations: one has lost her mother, one her father, one has both parents, for example. Also, these stories share a similar combination of bleakness and loss combined with possibility and glimpses of light, a unique mixture that, as with volatile chemicals, were it not precisely done would result in a lethal imbalance. But Miller is a master at striking exactly the right note here, and this is best illustrated by showing rather then telling:
In this paragraph, from the story My Brother In Christ, beautifully demonstrates what Miller does. Were we left with just the first image, of Avery calling his sister a whore for fucking around, that would be highly disturbing, but Miller deftly flips the mood so that now we are imagining her father's urn "sunning itself" and we almost smile here, and then the paragraph rounds off with suicide. We have moved through so many emotions, but for this reader the juxtaposition made them bearable, palatable, and very real. Miller is not a sensationalist, she doesn't choose her words to shock. She chooses the words that are necessary to convey what needs to be conveyed. She captures some essential spark that makes humans such complex creatures: the ability to face tragedy, to face apparently insurmountable loss and despair, and to see beyond, to imagine and to survive.
This was the ideal collection to return me to the pleasures of realist fiction. I enjoyed the stories more on a second read, already knowing that the plot is not central here, that while things happen, it is character and voice that Miller excels at. A collection that should be on everyone's bookshelves.
Read one of the stories from this collection in Barrelhouse
Publisher: Hobart Short Flight/Long Drive Books
Publication Date: 2009
First collection?: No.
Author: Mary Miller's stories have been published in Black Clock, Mississippi Review, Oxford American, New Stories from the South, 2008 and McSweeney's Quarterly.A collection of short short stories, Less Shiny, is published by Magic Helicopter Press. She is an associate editor at Quick Fiction.
Read an interview with Mary Miller
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If you liked this book you might also like....
Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"
Alice Munro "Runaway"
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