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by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-24845-6
Publisher: Norton

Campbell’s latest (Once Upon a River, 2011, etc.): a powerful but uneven collection focused on the experiences of working-class Michigan women.

She covered much the same ground in American Salvage (2009), a National Book Award finalist, but still has plenty of fresh insights, as evidenced in the collection’s three standout entries. The title story is a searing first-person monologue by a woman dying of lung cancer, talking back in her head to the reproachful, college-educated daughter who blames her for sharing her life with a parade of violent men who brutalized her children as well. “When I had a voice,” she muses in the wrenching climax, “I didn’t know how much I wanted to say to you, to explain how I lived my life the way I could.” “A Multitude of Sins,” by contrast, is the scary but gratifying account of an abused wife who finally gets her own back with the mortally ill husband who can no longer hurt her. The most nuanced and complex tale gently profiles Sherry, who has spent years trying to create “Somewhere Warm” for her family, a refuge totally different from “the bitter place where Sherry grew up, where people humiliated one another, where the power of love did not hold sway.” Instead, her smothering embraces drive away her husband, her lover, and her angry teenage daughter, though a tender ending offers tentative hope. Campbell’s protagonists are tough but heartbreakingly vulnerable; an appalling number have been molested as children or raped as adults, and they rarely seek justice since nothing in their experiences suggests it’s attainable for them. The very modesty of their dreams—“Our own home, a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us, where each of us has our own room and closet,” yearns the narrator of “To You, as a Woman”—indicts the society from which they expect so little.

A fine showcase for this talented writer’s ability to mingle penetrating character studies with quietly scathing depictions of hard-pressed lives.