Sunday, October 16, 2016

For the love of short stories -- and bad men.

I first encountered the power of the short form during high school. The curriculum covered a cross-section of English literature from Shakespeare through to Dickens, George Eliot and beyond. It also dipped into the short fiction of some truly great writers, and I was captivated. Something-something years later, I can still remember the feeling those stories left me with, even when the details of the narrative are fuzzy. It’s a sense of deep satisfaction at an arc of discovery perfectly executed. It’s that little gasp at the twist I didn’t see coming. It’s the unsettledness of a non-resolution that is somehow more right than a happy ending. It’s Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace. O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party. Tolstoy’s Where Love is, There God is Also. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. These stories cling to me even now, bearing a sense of wonder and breathless appreciation.

Yet, in spite of their power, I often forget to read short stories. I think, perhaps, that the form is not as appreciated now as it once was, and certainly not as celebrated and honoured as longer fiction. Which means that it’s not as much in conversation, even though the writing of short fiction requires an entirely different element of mastery than the writing of longer forms. So I’m grateful for anything that pushes me back into the biting embrace of short fiction and reminds me anew of how fantastic it is.

The last few months have done exactly that for me as I’ve dipped into short stories both new and old. Over the next little while I’ll be telling you about the short story collections I’ve encountered. This week, it’s The Love of a Bad Man, an August release from Scribe Publications by ridiculously-talented author, Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

The Love of a Bad Man is a collection of twelve short stories, each of which focusses on a woman in love with one of history’s notoriously “bad” men. There's Eva Braun, Hitler’s young wife; Blanche Barrow, a “fringe member” of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang and married to Clyde’s brother Buck; Charles Manson’s sister-wives. The stories of these and nine other women cross countries, generations, and settings to tell their tales in a blend of true crime and literary fiction.

The voices are flawless, each one unique yet linked by a sense of destructive destiny as each woman surrenders her morality for the love of a man. These women follow their men willingly because they genuinely believe they must; it’s their allotted path.

Sometimes deceptively sweet, these stories place softness and hardness side by side. The muted horror underplays the moral black holes these characters have stepped through and the focus is, instead, on the ordinariness of love and the magnetism of woman to man. It reveals the deceptions these women don’t even realise they’re believing -- or choosing not to examine -- coupled with woman’s capacity to love even the most undeserving of creatures."Ray always had a plum way of mixing his lies up with something like truth," Martha says, at once acknowledging and pardoning.

There's a chilling normalcy to the crimes that offers insight into the question, "But how could anybody do that?"  For better or for worse, these stories bring out the person within the monster, and not the other way around. In other moments, evil lies right there on the surface, provoking revulsion and despair. Sometimes the darkness was so black I had to turn away and look at the sun for a moment – which says as much about the impact of these stories as it does about my own squeamishness.

It is not surprising, then, that these stories will not be for everyone. What is surprising is how much empathy Woollett draws from these characters, showing how the women rewrite the meaning and significance of their actions to shape the narrative through the lens of their relationship.

For the women of these stories, theirs are not acts of moral degradation but of love. Their crimes are not the taking of something from a victim but the giving of something to a lover. There’s a sense of sacrifice here which makes the stories and their characters at once disturbing and compelling. In The Love of A Bad Man, love is truly blind.

The Love of a Bad Man
Laura Elizabeth Woollett 
Published August 2016 by Scribe Publications
240 pages