by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
These seven stories are each named after the women on whom they focus;
damaged women struggling to find and define themselves, often against a
background of domineering fathers and oblivious husbands.
Miller writes a mean description,
with a true artist's eye; the details are always telling and astutely
chosen: eyes are described as "pale blue like jeans washed too many
times"; a painting "is a pulsing, vast empty field of red, lonely as
the bottom of the sea"; a man falls in love "by watching her live.
Desire came last." However, despite the poetry of these
details, there is sometimes a lack of discrimination in their use,
which seriously undermines the effect. When everything in a story is
given equal weight - from a main character's marriage to every single
person present in a diner she steps into - nothing stands out.
In the same way, some stories felt
over-explained. Beautifully observed characters were given more history
than they could carry and suffocated under the weight. In Greta we learn
every detail of Greta's education, every job she has ever held, her
sexual history, even a dream drenched in symbolism from the night
before her wedding. It's too much. The same happens in Delia. I loved the
hard-edged Delia and the way that traditional roles of sexuality and
power were subverted in this piece. However, I found her precisely
mapped journey from class slut to abused wife tedious and off-putting,
as if every occurrence required a reason and proper motivation. At one
point we are told that Delia finally leaves her violent husband when
"the kids were howling, terrified. It was their pain that finally broke
through Delia’s inertia"; later she tells herself she was right to
leave by remembering her elder son "raising his fist in the air over
his two-year-old sister". Both are terrible and terrifying images – one
would be reason to leave, but two start to cancel one another out and
blur the impact of a stunning ending.
My favourites in this collection
were the more awkward, less coherent tales, those with a touch of the
unexplained that made the reader work. Nancy is a
claustrophobic nightmare, a family trapped in freefall together: a
distant child, a viciously suicidal father - "He wants there to be a
lot of blood when it happens. He wants her to have to deal with it" -
and an unfaithful mother. Point of view skews sickeningly between the
characters and there is an unreliability to Nancy's narration that
gives the story a gothic dreamlike quality. This fractured narrative is
cleverly layered with a magazine journalist's account of this 'perfect'
family life - yet another untrustworthy narrator balancing on an unsafe
Likewise Bryna withholds
vital knowledge from the reader and is the stronger for it. We never
learn why quiet, dreamy Bryna starts screaming in the middle of her
employer's dinner party - only that it is a release that enables her to
face down her domineering mother-in-law. The structure is more
traditional, less disassembled than Nancy and the story
made a virtue out of this plainer narrative style - a strong ending was
underlined with the triumphant arrival of long-awaited rain.
Miller has a fine eye and a real
talent. I sped through the stories of Personal Velocity,
believing absolutely in each of these women and feeling for their
plights. Perhaps the danger of inhabiting your characters so thoroughly
is that you feel obliged to then offer everything about them to your
reader, just to show that you can. I wanted Miller to be tougher, more
mysterious. To make the reader beg and then say no.
Read an excerpt from one of the
stories in this collection on Bookhugger.com
lives in London, where she is trying to find a balance between writing,
motherhood and having a life. Her short fiction has appeared in
Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others.
2009 (first published in 2002)
bio: Rebecca Miller is a painter, actor,
director and writer. She has directed a film of three of the stories in
Velocity as well as an adaptation of her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
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