Morris plumbs the depths of fraught relationships in this debut short story collection.
Certain connections leave their marks, and in these 17 stories, the author explores the experiences of women who can’t completely sever old ties, whether they’re with lovers, crushes, friends, relatives, or even enemies. In “Inheritance,” a young woman works as a “sin-eater” following the death of the wealthy Mrs. Alma Cabot, ritualistically consuming a cake containing all the dead woman’s transgressions. She plans to use the money to escape her draining relationship with the Cabots, but her own family—who rely on her income to survive—will not let her go willingly. “Life After” follows Beth as she grieves her college-aged son following his death in a diving accident at a local quarry. The tragedy creates a distance between Beth and her husband, which she fills by pursuing a questionable new friendship with her son’s best friend, Ethan. In “Skipping Stones,” a bookish high school girl named Terri comes to the attention of two very different boys. Unnerved by her parents’ recent separation, she fumbles through a series of alarming events involving each of them. “Fear of Heights” tracks a school counselor named Allison Conti’s reaction to the death of her ex-husband, Tony. She and Lydia—whom Tony left Allison for—must drive to their old hometown to attend the funeral, sparking difficult memories.
Whether these stories’ characters are haunted by the disappearance of a neighbor girl or harassed by an employer at an apple orchard or confused by the mysterious death of a mother, they must all figure out ways to exist in a world that seems bent on taking things from them. “Some people are born to sin; others inherit it,” begins “Inheritance.” The question of when one becomes responsible for one’s own suffering recurs, and the answer isn’t so easy. Morris’ prose is full of vibrant detail, whether the tale is set decades in the past or in the present day: “I watched a father and son sit side by side on a bench, both staring at their phones. After a while, the son nudged the father, but he never looked at him. The father nudged the son back….They pushed at each other, not seeing the smile on the other’s face.” The author also excels at shorter stories; most collected here are fewer than 10 pages in length. Morris has an ability to wring a lot of emotion out of a few scant details, giving the feeling of a much longer work. Many share settings and characters, which contributes to a sense of interconnectivity and added meaning. There are a few tales that lead to predictable places—moments when the reader may wish that Morris had veered off the beaten path or committed more fully to the outcome she chooses—but overall, she demonstrates a shrewd understanding of what makes her characters tick. In the end, readers will leave the collection feeling as though they’ve lived pieces of several real lives.
A varied set of tales from a skilled practitioner of the short form.