Deborah Willis’ The Dark and Other Love Stories (2017)

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


The Dark and Other Love Stories‘ superpower is clarity.

The majority of these stories are told in a first-person or close-third-person voice, creating an intimate space for understanding what might be difficult to confront in the harsh light of day. Giller juries have recognised story collections in the past, with current jury member Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing winning in 2013 and Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Various Cures winning in 2006. Others have progressed to the shortlist, like Samuel Archibald’s Arvida (Trans. Ronald Winkler) in 2015 and Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away in 2012. The 2017, however, the jury has not advanced either of the longlisted collections to the shortlist. 





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  2. Alley November 2, 2017 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    These stories sound excellent. Short stories can be a challenge, so always good when someone is able to do it well

    • Buried In Print November 8, 2017 at 8:55 am - Reply

      You can tell she took time with these stories. It’s strange to think how popular the form was once, given how few people seem drawn to it these days.

  3. Penny October 30, 2017 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    I have these sitting on my shelf — I pulled it off my shelf when it was longlisted for the Giller, but you’ve got me intrigued to pick it up sooner over later.

    • Buried In Print October 30, 2017 at 3:45 pm - Reply

      I know what you mean: there’s a flurry of good intentions with a prizelist is announced, but then the reality of how many reading hours exist in each day settles in.

  4. heavenali October 26, 2017 at 2:51 am - Reply

    These stories sound brilliant. Yet, another author whose name is new to me.

    • Buried In Print October 26, 2017 at 11:56 am - Reply

      There are definitely a lot of interesting women’s voices in this collection and I think you’d enjoy that aspect of her work, Ali.

  5. A Life in Books October 26, 2017 at 2:44 am - Reply

    Some delicious quotes here, and there’s at least one collection of her stories available in the UK. Hurrah!

    • Buried In Print October 26, 2017 at 11:54 am - Reply

      I’m so glad you are able to easily find some of her work; I think you’ll appreciate her voice!

  6. annelogan17 October 25, 2017 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Oh I enjoyed this collection too, although it was awhile ago now that I read it, and unfortunately I can’t remember much about it, other than REALLY liking the girlfriend on Mars story-it was so unique! I had never read anything like it before. Which was your favourite story?

    • Buried In Print October 25, 2017 at 5:34 pm - Reply

      Each one has its charms, but I liked the quiet fade-away of “The Dark” (no easy resolution) and the connections between “Todd” and “Flight” (I hate the end of one of those, but understood that it was a likely outcome). “Girlfriend on Mars” was surprisingly suspenseful, wasn’t it? For a story in which not much actually happens! 🙂

  7. iliana October 25, 2017 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    Oh I read some Deborah Willis but it’s been years ago. This one sounds good but it just takes extra effort for me to pick up a short story collection. I need to work on that a bit more.

    • Buried In Print October 25, 2017 at 5:03 pm - Reply

      Do you still have a yoga practice? I feel like short story reading is a practice like that – it takes a certain kind of devotion but, then, it rewards exponentially.

  8. Naomi October 25, 2017 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    Somehow the short story collections that didn’t make it to the shortlist got shoved down the priority list. But, really, I would love to read them too! This one sounds so good. And the library has it, so… maybe I’ll request it after I read a couple more books. 😉

  9. Café Society October 25, 2017 at 3:41 am - Reply

    I wish I could find my way in to short stories; these sound remarkable. But somehow I can never convince myself to spend reading time with people who aren’t going to hang around long enough for me to get to know them. I am an inveterate series reader as you might imagine.

    • buriedinprint October 25, 2017 at 7:40 am - Reply

      It didn’t just happen. I’m a novel lover (and, yes, a series lover too!), so I had to adjust to the pace and length and it took years of seeking out certain authors and collections for me to find a rhythm with reading stories. Have you tried any linked collections? They’re real favourites for me, and they might work as stepping stones into traditional collections if you really do want to incorporate them into your reading. But I’m sure there are plenty of longer works already on your TBR!

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