It is near impossible to review a work of art without some personal reflection slipping in. To that end, this new collection of stories from Toronto’s Carolyn Black gave me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Half of the 11 stories have female narrators who hold jobs that I have had at one point or another: a museum worker in “At World’s End, Falling Off,” an indexer in “Serial Love,” a writer in “Martin Amis is in My Bed,” an editor in “Games” and working with rare books in “Retreat.”
The occupational crossovers played a part in why I found these stories so compelling, but only a small one. I was utterly charmed by Black’s upbeat, but still bleak writing. She pulls off such an oxymoronic combo by infusing her stories with the surreal. In “Hysteria” the main character Alisa’s head “splits from her neck and hits the bedspread with a muffled thwump,” making literal that body-mind disconnect with some seriously dark wit.
In the titular story, the child is truly odious, covered in fur, feral and masturbating. One wonders whether this is a manifestation of the narrator’s mental illness or a metaphor for something else locked away in the study. So many possible meanings are conveyed with such little verbiage, like when the child’s minder almost has her ward discovered and then screws up her cover: “I try out my smile. . . and give the wrong one. The snarl.”
When the editor of the story “Games” is berated for failing to finish her work, she reminds herself, “they do not see the hours of thinking I did about each word, which is the part I enjoy.” Not to worry, Ms. Black, we see all your careful work and enjoy it, too. More, please. (Carrie Schmidt)
Carolyn Black, 160 pgs, Nightwood Editions, nightwoodeditions.com, $21.95