Having got over my lifelong antipathy to short stories I still find myself drawn more to the linked variety rather than collections of standalones. There’s something about spotting a character familiar from a previous story and wondering how they might develop. Anna Noyes’ debut collection seemed like it might fit that category and although it turned out to be not quite what I was expecting – to be fair the press release does say ‘loosely interconnected’ – it’s immensely satisfying.
Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. In ‘Hibernation’, for instance, a woman’s increasingly unhinged husband has drowned, apparently killing himself, but she’s convinced he’s still alive, watching her. A girl ricochets between childhood and womanhood then back again while her widowed father worries about how to discuss the rape of a young woman in ‘Safe as Houses’. ‘The Quarry’ has a ten-year-old taxing her fifteen-year-old sister about her love life and finding out more than she wants to hear. The titular story sees a young woman aghast at what happens when she, her reclusive mother and the man who helped raise her since she was six take a trip out-of-state while in ‘Changeling’ a young nurse constantly searching for a mother after her own left nineteen years ago thinks she may have found her but turns out to have found something else instead. These five give a flavour of the eleven stories which comprise Noyes’ slim, elegant collection.
These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes’ writing is arrestingly striking at times, quietly controlled and finely honed: ‘Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered, like my body wasn’t the one he expected, but it was too late, too embarrassing for both of us to turn back’ exemplifies her empathetic exploration of human complexity. ‘I thought of my mother, who had taken to wearing her robe from morning until evening, and ghosting around the house with her swollen eyes and mottled face’ elegantly expresses depression’s devastating effects on both mother and child. Noyes sketches subtle word pictures of the human state in myriad shades of grey. These women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. It’s an admirable collection. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.