Characters obsess over physical and emotional metamorphoses in this debut collection.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses lurks in the DNA of these 17 stories, as characters reckon with the changing forms of the bodies (and minds) they are in. Two teen girls fantasize about turning into plants, using the story of Apollo and Daphne as their model, after they are sexually harassed (“Arms Overhead”). Bullwinkel also writes movingly of the late middle-aged and the elderly grappling with the transformations of aging, as in “Mouth Full of Fish,” about two ill patients going for a night swim. But if Ovid is here, so too is the deep surrealism of Max Ernst. Bullwinkel has a gift for the eye-popping opening line: “People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds” begins “Burn,” a tale about a middle-age man helping widows through their grief in an unorthodox manner. “Nave,” a flash piece about the devouring impulses of religion, starts, “My father told me that our church had a belly.” Sometimes the surprise is less in the opening than in the strange turns the tales take once they launch; in one of the collection’s standouts, “Décor,” a young woman working in a luxury furniture showroom has her ennui punctured by a communication from a prisoner with a flair for home design. In “Clamor,” a medium holding a group session must navigate the conflicting desires of her clients, both dead and living. Weirdness is almost de rigeur in short fiction these days, but Bullwinkel also shows impressive range and deep emotional intelligence.
While the shortest pieces in the book can be frustratingly oblique, when Bullwinkel gives herself a larger canvas to dive into the grief and panic of characters caught between one thing and another, her stories approach brilliance.