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Big World

Mary Miller

" I was the only person who really knew him, he'd told me, but after six months he still felt brand new. I knew enough facts that I could present a decent-length paper, a timeline of major events, but when he put his hands around my neck, I couldn't say for sure he wouldn't kill me. "

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:

"Dana used to sleep with Sean but Avery didn't like her fucking his friends, so she stopped and their relationship is much better now. He doesn't call her a whore anymore or tell her that their father is turning over in his grave, which she hated because their father isn't even in a grave. He's in an urn. She's not sure where because her mother moves him around. Sometimes he's sunning himself at the kitchen window, other times he's the centrepiece in the dining room. For a while he was in the attic. That was right after he died and Dana put him there because her mother was cursing him to hell, which she considered unwise seeing as he killed himself."

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

Tania Hershman is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"


PublisherHobart Short Flight/Long Drive Books

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

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

Buy this book (used or new) from:

Author's recommended bookseller: Hobart Short Fligh/Long Drive Books




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

If you liked this book you might also like....

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Alice Munro "Runaway"

What other reviewers thought:

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Sean Lovelace


Time Out Chicago

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