Lights in the Distance
 by Susan Millar DuMars

Doire Press
First Collection

"The rain began begrudgingly. The sky was a woman who had cried too often, until even her tears were tired."

Reviewed by Arja Salafranca

This debut collection by Irish-American writer Susan Millar DuMars is a slim one, and is a mixed bag. I found some of the stories to be highly memorable, while others seemed to wisp away, leaving little impression. True to DuMars’ mixed heritage, born in the US, she lives in Ireland, the stories straddle both continents, the urban conurbations of the US and Ireland serving as the frames for these stories.

Grace is one of those that has stayed with me and is a quiet shocker of a tale. Let’s start with that one as the portrayal of madness and desperation is so breathtakingly, skilfully told: a story that’s etched itself on my memory.

Without giving too much away, Grace is the icily-told story of the servant/helpmeet of mad Mrs Rochester, she of Jane Eyre fame. The story takes place entirely within the ill-heated attic rooms that Mrs R and Grace inhabit, and within the equally confining memories of Grace and the disgraceful path that led to her being shut up with Mrs R. Grace recalls why her mother chose that name: "She saw God’s grace shining like a soft light from my features… Grace is a soft whisper of a name…" And yet Grace is anything but a soft whisper of a person, and it only dawns on us as reader, that Grace is anything like her name. This is an astonishing story, a compellingly-readable piece, and one of the most powerful examples of insanity I've read in fiction.

Equally chilling and for very different reasons, is the wittily and originally-titled Stupid Slim-Neck Audrey Hepburn Dreams. In this one Lois is the teenage protagonist and the story begins: "The new Lois only eats carrot sticks and yogurt." A Lois born when she sees herself as part of a studio audience on a TV show, and sees, "that thing, that squinting, thick-fingered thing, that mountain in a sweatshirt and stretch pants …" And so, dieting, carrot sticks, walking, stomach burbling – this is an extremely short, neat tight story and yet what a punch it packs, that final desperate denouement is pitch perfect. The story transcends the tale of a fat girl who wants to be thin and stretches beyond into that tantalisingly complicated terrain of mother-daughter relations. Yet, only just.

Other stories highlight the spaces and crevices inherent in all relationships. Knowing my Brother is about a problematic sibling, one who has been institutionalised, disappears for weeks and worries his family with his erratic behaviour. His sister has come to an uneasy understanding of the nature of her sibling, but this doesn’t ease or smooth away the problems of such a relationship.

Meanwhile two other stories take a look at love once the bloom of youth is long gone.

Everyone’s Mother probes the equally fraught path of love between two middle-aged people: the woman has a teenage daughter who barely approves of her dating, while the man lives with his mother. At first it’s comical that the pair have to make out in a car like a couple of love-struck teens, but the heart of this story is darker and sadder, the beam of Millar’s light merciless here: the scratched, damaged path that older lovers take is painful to see. The comically-executed and named Lennon and McCartney takes an altogether different look at love in middle life – and twists both comedy and hints of erotism into the mix in equal measure.

All the above stories are intimate in nature, whether centred on one protagonist or looking at spaces between two people. Less successful for me were those stories that centred on groups of people. The collection opens begins with a story that I found confusing at first, Belfast, about a middle-aged group meeting for drinks and companionship in a pub. Full of dialogue and names, including that of the pub owner, I found it hard finding a path through this one. Equally difficult was Eve, in which, again a bar serves as backdrop to the action, and yet I lost track of why Eve sits there on New Year’s Eve with a stranger while her boyfriend Tom stands outside.

Millar’s language is infused with a sense of play and poetry, not surprising given that she has also published two volumes of poetry. Some of her descriptions of the American and Irish cities that serve as the settings of these stories deserve especial mention. Millar subverts the conventions, giving emotion to inanimate objects, and the effect skirts the surreal, and makes for delightful reading. In Fondly, "The sky was a woman who had cried too often, until even her tears were tired” while in Eve: “The avenue was flirting. The white marquee of the Erotic Cabaret dazzled like a smile; taxis splashing through puddles sounded like sighs."

Arja Salafranca's debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. Her collections of poetry are: A life Stripped of Illusions, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Awards include the 2010 Dalro Award and the Sanlam Award, twice. She selected stories for The Edge of Things, South African fiction, published in April 2011.
Arja's other Short Reviews: Best American Short Stories 2010

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Susan Millar DuMars was born in Philadelphia. She has been short-listed for the Cúirt New Writing Prize and the START chapbook prize. Her fiction was awarded a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland in 2005 and was showcased in a mini-collection, American Girls (Lapwing Publications) in 2007. Susan has also published two volumes of poems with Salmon Poetry.

Read an interview with Susan Millar DuMars