The narrative perspective in Widow (Michelle Latiolais, Bellevue Literary Press) is what strikes at first—a third person close which mostly functions as a kind of gentle wrapping (a shroud or veil is the image that comes to my mind) to what appears to be autobiographical writing. There is this feeling that all of these pieces are actually a first person narrative, and even more, that they are casted retellings of the author’s personal experiences, if not of distinct memories than of the emotional charge of real events but then recreated in new fictional surroundings.
Usually all that matters to me is the way the fiction works, how each piece creates its effect—but part of the effect of Widow involves this tension between fiction and memoir, involves the reader’s awareness that we’re reading an individual’s intensely interior negotiation of a series of events. That awareness is quite spellbinding.
The “event” (which remains almost completely off the page) is the unexpected death of a husband. And the stories alternate their focus between an unnamed “she” (the widow) and an unnamed “young woman” (an earlier self). As the stories connect and are juxtaposed, the collection creates a fuller portrait of a life and a marriage, of the transformation of a young woman into a widow, and what both those labels actually mean.
Most of the stories are quite short and the collection itself finishes out at around 150 pages, but the collection as a whole embodies the notion of intensity that most shorter work should—the stories do not move slowly into their crucial moments but begin at a place where the reader must work somewhat to keep up, and Latiolais’s language is rich in the sense that the vocabulary is elevated and the imagery often sophisticated.
To see what I mean, take a look at the quote I posted the other day from what is probably my favorite story in the collection, “Pink.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the collection is Latiolais’s willingness to let the reader remain unsure of meaning and message. This is where her writing reminded me of Christine Schutt, in the way that there are hints but not full resolution, in the way that the created atmosphere often informs the reader’s understanding more than a linear or plotted narrative telling. I love this kind of sideways entrance to the appreciation/understanding of story.
On the whole, this is a beautiful and unique collection. For the most part the stories work splendidly together and there is only one outlier that bears mentioning—the last piece is a first person story/essay that confirms the autobiographical nature of the collection, but it was, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary. The essay in and of itself is strong, but I suppose I preferred the hinting and the tension that the rest of the stories worked around. And the very last fiction piece in Widow is incredibly strong—a layered memory-type piece called “Burqa” about motherhood, about living alone, about letting our children go—and it would have been lovely to simply end with the last lines of this story:
Who was that solo act, that sui generis, that singular who had then hoodwinked entire civilizations with such stunning propaganda? At least she had made art, beauty, a boy’s fine limbs.
Just a quick word on Bellevue Literary Press for anyone unfamiliar with their work. This is an independent press founded by the New York University School of Medicine, and their entire mission is to publish literary fiction that deals with science and medicine in some way. They have a very good-looking fiction catalogue (which I plan on working slowly through) and it includes a novel by Michelle Latiolais called A Proper Knowledge. It also includes a former Necessary Fiction writer-in-residence as well, Tim Horvath, with his collection Understories.