Marry or Burn
 by Valerie Trueblood

Counterpoint Press
First Collection
Awards: Shortlisted, 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

" Our father married a woman who took an ax to a bear. She did it to save her first husband."

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

Marry or burn: why choose between the two? Some of the women in these stories manage both (at least metaphorically). The wife in the first story, Amends, shoots her husband. You can't get much more fire-power in a marriage than that. The final story, Beloved, You Looked into Space, tells the story of a family who acquire a new step-mother who once used violence in defence of her late husband. In fact, both of these stories (and others in this collection) display the sort of expansiveness that you'd expect to find in a novel rather than a short story, having a wide cast of characters and a lengthy timeline.

All sorts of angles on marriage are represented in this collection – from dating to weddings to widowhood. Second (and subsequent) marriages and affairs also feature. In the penultimate story there's even a Tom Thumb Wedding, a mock ceremony in which two young girls, decked out as bride and groom, "marry". It's a touching story that moves back and forth in time between "then" and "now" and examines how the innocence of childhood and matrimony have changed, or haven't. In Choices in Dreams a woman falls in love with someone else's husband. In Suitors, Meg doesn't content herself with one potential husband, she works her way through all three men presented to her by her friend Lali, who is a professional matchmaker.

These are American stories, and they are predominantly ones that focus upon women's experiences. Trespass is an exception to this, being the story of a man who goes back to his ex-wife's cabin and meets a couple who are tangled up in her lives. It's a complex look at how past and present relationships intrude upon each other, the importance of physical territory in defining a relationship and how the carer can end up becoming the one who is cared for.

Invisible River pulls the curious trick of reminding us that we're reading a story without ever totally becoming a meta-fiction. Suddenly we are pulled away from two women in a train station bathroom and told that, "Groundless near happiness doesn't do anything for the Reader, if she comes across it on the page. She is looking for something with an edge." And "the Reader" in the story gives us a wry analysis of women in fiction. "They're embarking on this or that, lowering themselves into unfamiliar waters, testing their freedom. Behind them there's always some ruin, some man has ruined everything and then they surmount the ruin."

I enjoyed the knowing humour of these sorts of commentaries which sometimes break free from the story. For example, the rules of widowhood are explained.
"A widow didn't go on and on in the sloppy condition permitted in the first weeks; a widow remarried or took an interest in the church or the lives of the next generation, or all three, ideally. To do otherwise, to let a bad habit get the better of you, to drink cheap wine for months on end, certainly to be picked up out of wet grass before dawn and have the snails pulled off you by your own do these things was to imply that your loss had exceeded the losses of others. That your husband had been somehow superior. That you, yourself, had been uniquely struck down."
These stories offer new angles on the experience of marriage, with characters who are both in and out of the state of matrimony, both those who anticipate it and those who are living in its aftermath As in life, there are no romantic, sugar-coated happily-ever-afters about these stories but there is plenty of hope and humanity to be found, along with a certain amount of heat.

Read a story from this collection in Narrative Magazine (subscription required)

Pauline Masurel is married. She enjoys fire juggling.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Erin Pringle "The Floating Order"

Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead"

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds) "Let's Call
the Whole Thing Off"

Ben Tanzer "Repetition Patterns"

Paul Meloy "Islington Crocodiles"

Dan Rhodes "Anthropology"

Frank Burton "A History of Sarcasm"

Various "Ten Journey"

Michael Sims (ed) "Dracula's Guest

Margaret Atwood "Good Bones"

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya "There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby"

Rob Redman (ed) "various authors"
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Valerie Trueblood lives in Seattle. She is author of the novel Seven Loves and a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review.

Read an interview with Valerie Trueblood