A collection of short stories and a novella that explore love, aging, loss and solitude from a feminist perspective.
Nearly all of Newbrough’s (The Archetype Strikes Back, 2012) protagonists are older women, isolated in some way through circumstances or quirks of their personalities. There’s the widow suffering from dementia, the prim cat lady, the graveyard-shift janitor obsessed with reality television, and others. Many of the stories end with a death; taken together, the collection feels like a series of final chapters carved from larger, more compelling narratives. In her acknowledgments, Newbrough explains that her intent is to explore how “despite a person’s isolation or withdrawal the world persists within the self and transformation occurs as long as life endures.” Overall, however, the sensation is one of denouement rather than transformative change. The exception is the novella, Child with Mannequin, the fourth story in this volume, in which the main character is an oil painting created as a gesture of maternal love but then ultimately stolen from the beloved daughter it depicts. The ambitious story envisions the painting as a mute yet intelligent observer of lives representing a broad cross section of New Orleans society from the early 20th century to the floods that accompanied Hurricane Katrina in 2004. Here, where life and death are both metaphor and fact, Newbrough’s thematic concept carries more weight: She makes clear how intellectual and emotional lives can transcend generations and how losses can be both permanent and permeable. The prose is intelligent and sometimes-evocative but often sloppy: “Why Martha married Jason in the first place was a mystery of her own heart.” A firmer editorial eye—both to eliminate errors and streamline some of the more overblown language (e.g., “chthonic depths”)—would have made this gathering of stories even more quietly compelling.
An intimate portrayal of lives whose final chapters often go largely unobserved; best appreciated by those interested in feminist literature and issues of aging.