Nine honest, unsentimental debut stories about women grappling with AIDS, from memoirist Peterson (Penitent, with Roses, 2001), herself HIV-positive.
Presumably her experiences as hotline volunteer gave the Jewish, middle-class author some of the details she uses to describe the lives of her generally poor and black protagonists, but it’s the empathy of an artist that enables her to enter their minds and hearts with such acuity. From the collection’s hopeful opening with “A Miracle,” in which a dying woman is healed and given a new start by a surprisingly down-at-the-heels deity (“You’d think God would pay more attention to his appearance,” comments Lucinda), to its painfully beautiful conclusion in “Song of Camille,” Peterson faultlessly captures the rhythms of African-American speech and the reality of life at the bottom of American society without ever condescending to her subjects. These are tough, intelligent women; a running joke in the final tale has Camille following up each foulmouthed, bad-girl declaration with a shrewd psychological insight she invariably attributes to her white therapist, but the fact is no authority figure needs to explain their problems to these characters. They got their disease from drug use, prostitution, and men as messed-up as they were, some of them passed it to their children, and they live every day with the consequences and the guilt. Ironically, the three least interesting stories—“Africa,” “The Woman in the Long Green Coat,” and “In the Grove”—deal with educated people closer to the author’s own background, although “In the Grove” closes with a moving affirmation of solidarity among the stricken that resonates throughout the text. “Song of Camille” is the masterpiece here, a breathtaking blend of humor, fury, and sorrow that realistically reminds us there are no unmixed happy endings—the heroine achieves real understanding and self-control just as she loses her job and her daughter is suspended from school—but also conveys a piercingly moving sense of hope.
Twenty years into the epidemic, a work with something truly new to say about AIDS: that’s quite an achievement.