Hardship, brutality and frustration are balanced by sudden gleams of grace in these luminous period fables.
Recreating a wide palette of historical settings, Davis’ stories are full of old-fashioned perils but have characters and emotional conflicts that feel fresh. At the modern end of the timeline, “Thusey” investigates the delicate emotional dilemma of a slave woman in the Civil War-era South who defies the conventions of white and Black society. At the other temporal extreme, “The Lure” recounts a prehistoric midlife crisis—an exciting young woman tempts a 40-something barbarian away from his boring marriage, after nursing him back to health from a bear mauling. In between, readers meet an 18th-century study in narcissism in the form of a Mozartian musician with an unappeasable thirst for applause (“The Unknown”), a Dutch orphan who runs off to sea and learns about moral shades of gray from a gang of bloodthirsty pirates (“Soup”) and a 14th-century English jester disgusted by the corrupt politics at King Edward II’s court. The author’s scenarios have a tense naturalism in which existence is a grind of work and calculation, always with an eye toward a loaf of bread or a piece of land—until a life is upended by disease, murderous clan feuds or a rat attack. But these also feel like fairy tales for grown-ups, gripping legends full of vigorous deeds, arbitrary power, otherworldly innocence and the occasional sadomasochistic priest or magic sea turtle. There are explicit morals—people learn over and over that modest happiness is worth far more than riches and fame—and a palpable religiosity (especially in “The Garden,” in which a woman in Roman Palestine endures a most agitating houseguest—Christ.) Davis steeps her fictive world in evocative imagery—“He watched her eat daintily, the long thin fingers picking at her food like knitting needles”—and a vibrant, lyrical prose. While her characters weather hard lives and capricious fates, they still see loveliness and divinity in everyday life.
Harshly beautiful stories, shot through with spiritual exaltation.