Published by Awst Press, the stories in Marcelle Heath’s new short story collection Is That All There Is? come in three distinct flavors.
The first of these are the dream-like narratives of stories like “The Bluff,” where a woman named Mattie recalls the ghostly visage of a young girl and her terrier on the edge of a grassy cliff, or “Origin,” where a woman brushes her boss’ daughter’s hair only to find a small owl living it. These stories are unbound by any single time or location, and a single sentence might propel us through an adolescence or a life-long feud with a family member. But while they might seem strange or even confusing at first, they gradually begin to make sense in the context of the larger collection.
This is where the second type of stories come in. These are longer, much more traditional stories, which introduce many of the characters we will see throughout Heath’s book. They give us the backbone of the larger narrative. Take “Favorite,” for example, which follows the intrigue of two children, Marco and Sam, who are convinced that their brother Henry is the favorite in the family. Set against the backdrop of their sister Sunny and her mysterious illness (Sunny, who will grow up to be the woman from the “Origin” story), it is this second type of story which takes on the bulk of the collection and it is where Heath is able to show off her talents as a writer. The language is evocative yet terse, a single sentence never outstaying its welcome. Where a sentence might have two or three more clauses than the others, they are always followed by a heartstopping bullet of a rejoinder: “Before Sunny was sent away this time, Sam remembered her disappearing for days, their mother smoking in the parlor, tinned sardines and tomato water for supper. Sightings of her like coins dropped in a vending machine.”
The third type of story is much more difficult to describe. They are like punctures in the reality of the book. These stories—such as “Tallahassee” and “Lake Sammamish”—are never any longer than a few lines, but yet are still able to capture a bursting human emotion or feeling. Take the story, “Mall of America,” for instance, which perfectly articulates the absurdity of tragedy with nothing more than three lines. And while there are of course exceptions to these rules (the story, “The Nine Times Gretchen King Is Mistaken on July 12, 1980,” is written out as though the mistakes of a woman’s life could be boiled down to a shopping list), it speaks to the collection’s strong sense of style that the interconnective nature of the stories doesn’t ever feel disjointed.
This is accomplished in large part due to Heath’s heroines. Heath’s women are the centerpiece of the collection and also work as its connective tissue. While the collection will chronicle generations of differing families, no one story is given overarching importance. This is why the book remains a short story collection as opposed to a novel. But it is driven by these characters. Like Phyllis Bryce, the mother to Sonny, Henry and Macro, or Mary Jane, a portrait artist who flees to the South of America. Often we are introduced to these women at their lowest point; when their memory or sanity is failing them or when their marriages have just fallen apart. We are dropped, helplessly, into their POV and forced to understand them so that we can understand what is happening. (Indeed, the only time the book ever really fell flat for me was when characters were not quite striking enough in their initial story to be easily memorable when they reappear later). Many of these stories include adultery, cheating and even incest as chilling motives for the disasters behind these women’s lives, but Heath never paints her characters as victims.
In fact, what really marks the collection as a whole is this feeling of beauty and elegance amongst both the day-to-day and the tragic. The shorter stories do this with short, sharp gut punches. Desperate cries to be heard breaking out of whatever time or space had captured them to begin with. But the longer stories will do it by taking you by surprise. Such as the revelation in “Mr. Putnam’s Sitting,” where Mary Jane reveals the struggles she has had with getting pregnant in two brief lines: One was lost. And another. But then, one cold night Mary Jane felt a bolting, fine-grained as ash, and nine months later Theo was born. Or in the touching “Nightswimming,” which chronicles a woman called Linda who has to maneuver the politics of her boss having an affair while also looking after her children, but which interrupts a trip to get ice cream to perfectly sum up the feeling of being more naked in your clothes than out of them.
It is overall a remarkable debut that is able to flick between characters, emotions and lifetimes without breaking a sweat. One where a single life is never unimportant no matter how it might appear from the outside.
Publisher: Awst Press
Publication Date: September 13th, 2022
Reviewed by Mark Daniel Tayler