Delicate and deliberate, these stories are sometimes startling and always moving.
In some, the darkness is overt and inescapable; in others, quietly pervasive and creeping.
A passage from “Welcome to Paradise” seems to whisper of the author’s motivations:
“Even now I like ghost towns and abandoned houses, places that seem to be haunted, buildings with dark, locked rooms. While visiting friends and family, I find myself assessing their homes in terms of security. I look for open windows. I examine door hinges and latches and the flimsy locks on gates. I look for a way in. When I find, it, I look for a way out.”
As a storyteller, Deborah Willis seems to look for a way in – and sometimes a way out – of these pockets of unexplored or never-forgotten spaces.
Her characters often inhabit moments of vulnerability, sometimes finding unexpected resolve, sometimes lashing out, whether inwardly – in despair, or outwardly, in anger.
In “Last One to Leave”, Sydney aims to forge her own destiny:
“Rather than correct the mistake, she packed her notebook and her warmest tights, but didn’t bother with the thin blouses her mother had given her, the cardigans with delicate buttons. Those were meant for a different sort of girl, a girl who planned to wait around for a man to marry her. Sydney would make her own life.”
In “The Passage Bird”, Shiri demonstrates a kind of fierce independence, at an even younger age, despite feeling like an outsider:
“Other families went to church, Shiri noticed; no one else’s parents had accents; and other girls had straight hair that she envied, hair that hung prettily down their backs.”
But the characters’ plans to explore and expand do not always progress. Sometimes they stall like Amber and Kevin’s in “Girlfriend on Mars”:
“We sat on this couch and made a decision. We were – I believed – committed to going nowhere. Going nowhere together.”
Sometimes there is a quiet desperation to capture a peaceful stasis, as in “Welcome to Paradise”:
“Wait.” I reached for her hand – now I didn’t want to leave. Outside this room, we’d be back in the ordinary world, where time passed. We would grow up; we would separate; we would die.”
Deborah Willis’ young girls and women are keenly drawn. From the title story, about two girls at summer camp (“We were hungry for feral time. That’s why we loved the dark.”) to the last story, which plays with a wondrous kind of darkness, both seen and unseen.
Often they are eager to please, sometimes others but sometimes simply themselves.
“I knew the answer. Pick me, pick me. I wore my Sunday dress: blue like the sky, with puffed sleeves and a lace collar. I still remember how it felt to spin in that dress, then watch it settle around me like a cloud.
I stretched my hand so high that little grunts escaped my throat. But Miss Robb’s eyes passed over me, scanned the other children fidgeting with their fancy church clothes, or picking their scabs.” (“The Ark”)
The language is simple and clear. The chronology is often straightfoward but sometimes darts between two times, the past zigging and zagging through memory to meet with the present. The sensory detail is controlled and spare (as with the cloud fabric and the picked scabs in the passage above).
The characters compell readers to turn the pages of their stories. Both “Girlfriend on Mars” and “Todd” held me rapt (with “Todd”, I read open-mouthed at one point, desperate for a resolution), but a quiet tension infuses the other tales as well.
The kind of tension which rests in hopes kept in the dark. It keens and pulls, it thrums and leans: these are quietly satisfying stories.
Her Giller longlisting is not the first time I’ve noticed Deborah Willis’ stories, but I’m so glad to have had an excuse to finally read this collection; now I want to read her others.
Contents: The Dark, Girlfriend on Mars, The Passage Bird, Hard Currency, Last One to Leave, I Am Optimus Prime, Welcome to Paradise, Todd, Flight, The Ark, Steve and Lauren: Three Love Stories