I was first introduced to Ruth Joffre’s work as an assistant fiction editor at Nashville Review, when we published her story “Some of the Lies I Tell My Children,” in 2016. I was excited to see where her writing would take her, and her debut story collection, Night Beast and Other Stories, does not disappoint. It’s a mysterious and dark book, unafraid of confronting just how bleak life can be. In the title story, the narrator thinks, “…I had the experience not of dread but of knowing that something dreadful was coming and that I’d have to be ready for it.” The same could be said for the reader. A sense of foreboding threads through these stories, and reading them is like walking through unlit woods, unsure of just what you’ll find. Joffre frequently writes about women who are in trouble, or just a step away from it. In “Go West, and Grow Up,” the narrator, a girl who’s been living in the car with her mother for almost a year, narrowly escapes the owner of a dog she’s been petting, a man who slips a hand beneath her coat and says, “Don’t be coy, you must be earning a living somehow.” Men are often a menacing presence here, even when they don’t appear so to others. In “I’m Unarmed,” the narrator and her mother move in with her uncle and his son, and the narrator is forced to share a bedroom with her cousin. Though no one in the family objects to this, the reader knows she’s in danger by the end of the first page: “I wouldn’t be able to see his hand if it reached for me.” Her cousin’s private threat grows and grows, until it finally explodes in a public, violent confrontation.
The sense of foreboding is not always so blatant, though; sometimes it’s tied to something much subtler, to the anticipation of the choices a character must make for herself. Joffre will make her characters’ desires known, and then allow an essential question to hang in the air: will they act on these desires, or won’t they? In “Weekend,” a story about the cast of an avant-garde television show that blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, the protagonist, Weston, falls for Julia, the actress playing his television girlfriend. The show airs for fifteen years, and even after it ends, he’s still harboring feelings for her, but she has a husband and child. The cast goes to Weston’s cabin to celebrate the end of the show, and it’s clear Weston still longs for Julia: he listens to her shower and hopes that she’ll ask him to join her in bed. But at the end of the story, he comes to “understand their time had passed.” And so, in less than a page, this decade-plus of desire is snuffed.
Joffre’s stories often end in this way: the characters’ wants unfulfilled, with no clear sense of what will come next. “Go West, and Grow Up” ends with the narrator stepping outside of the car she and her mother have called home, listening to the sound of her mother crying within. The engine’s stalled, and they’re somewhere in rural Oregon, alone on the road. The story concludes with this sentence: “It would be at least an hour before a car drove past us and longer still before one stopped.” What will become of them? We can’t know. In “I’m Unarmed,” the narrator cuts her hair before leaving the bedroom of her friend and lover, Andie. “The hair I cut off, I left on the floor, where Andie would find it and know that I was never coming back.” The gesture is definitive, but the shape her future will take is not. In “Night Beast,” Gemma listens to “the night—its great and inimitable roar” after it’s made clear that her brother’s fiancée, who she was sexually involved with during the fiancée’s bouts of sleepwalking, had “chosen my brother.” These stories do not seek neat endings for their characters; they leave them at crossroads.
Perhaps this is because so many of Joffre’s characters are at internal crossroads, regardless of what they present to the outside world. In “I’m Not Asking,” a miscarriage creates tension between the narrator and her wife, Aimee. They can no longer communicate or understand each other like they once could, and so, while on a botched date with Aimee, the narrator imagines the two of them at a hotel where the sun doesn’t set, an alternate realty that ultimately provides little escape: “We’ve grown so far apart I don’t know how to reach her” she realizes during this fantasy. In “Nitrate Nocturnes,” a story that takes place in a world where everyone is born with a timer in their wrist, counting down the seconds until they meet their soul mate, Fiona’s timer malfunctions, and when she finally finds the woman that she thinks could be her soul mate, their times don’t align. Even as she continues to date Marianne, Fiona “couldn’t help thinking…that desire was a spectacle and that she would spend all her time with Marianne contorting herself into the woman she thought her soul mate wanted.” Joffre’s characters are restless, caught in difficult situations and complicated relationships.
Joffre joins an exciting group of women writers writing about the female body and desire. Fans of Carmen Maria Machado, Daisy Johnson, and Leopoldine Core will find a welcome new voice here. Joffre’s fearlessness to dive into the murky waters of longing makes this an original and startling debut.
Publisher: Black Cat, and Imprint of Grove Atlantic
Publication date: May 8, 2018
Reviewed by Alina Grabowski