Like a lot of people, I met 2017 with despair. Reading a short story—much less an entire collection of them—felt like an impossible task. I had to force myself to sit down and read The Dark and Other Love Stories. I was glad I did: The Dark and Other Love Stories is reason for hope. Should this sound like hyperbole, I can only direct you to my usual reviews, most often ranging from tepid to outraged.
A shared a penchant for the surreal means Willis’s writing sees frequent if topical comparisons to Aimee Bender’s. Willis’s stories are more subtle, venturing into the paranormal only as far as necessary to make their points. The protagonists of The Dark and Other Love Stories don’t fit in birdcages; they aren’t kept as pets. Girls aren’t possessed of inexplicably flaming limbs as a matter of course. Instead, these are stories about the ways loneliness, isolation, and the inability to communicate throw up barriers between friends and lovers, husbands and wives.
In “The Dark”, Jess and Andrea are 13-year-old girls at summer camp. They spend their days dutifully attending activities, sneaking out at night to explore. Then a disturbing encounter on the lake changes everything. If you’re a straight female, read “The Dark” and recall your own adolescent self, maliciously eager and able to betray your best girlfriends, all for a fleeting moment of male attention.
Hannah and Lielle, the 14-year-olds of “Welcome to Paradise”, are another example of female adolescence run amok. Their original summer vacation plans involved spraying Sun-In in their hair (a temporary hair lightener popular with the teen set) and “making boys fall in love with us.” Instead, bored and unsupervised, they begin breaking into houses, throwing the neighborhood into a panic and leaving Hannah unsettled and questioning.
“Girlfriend on Mars” is one of the few stories concluding on quasi-upbeat note. Amber Kiniven and Kevin Watkins live together in a Vancouver apartment, earning their living growing and selling high-grade marijuana. Kevin is startled to discover Amber has applied for a spot on MarsNowTM. A combination reality-television- show-attempt-to-colonize-Mars. MarsNowTM requires rigorous mental and physical training before a live television audience.
Set in Canada’s small towns and larger cities, The Dark and Other Love Stories makes frequent reference to Canadian geography and culture—pewee hockey, Native Canadians (“Indian” is the rudest of insults in Canada), rural youth fleeing to Vancouver. While insider knowledge of Canada isn’t necessary to appreciate the novel, marriage to a Canadian deepened this reader’s appreciation of passages like this, where Kevin describes his fear of Amber’s father, a native Finn now residing in Thunder Bay, Ontario:
When we were growing up, her dad coached pewee hockey and would put me in goal without a helmet, which was supposed to teach me to be less afraid of the puck. He still addresses me by my last name, Watkins, and it still scares me.
All writers have their pet fascinations. Emily St. John Mandel has her shipping containers. Siri Hustvedt writes of neurobiology. Jane Smiley casts a broad net but invariably returns to horses. Willis is a bird freak. In the acknowledgments, she cites Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, along with Esther Woolfson’s elegant yet lesser-known Corvus (illustrated, incidentally, by Helen Macdonald).
In “The Passage Bird”, Shiri is the teenaged daughter of Holocaust survivors struggling to acclimate in Canada. After a freak accident kills her brother, Shiri seeks the company of Hawk Man, a recluse preferring avian company to human. His company, however compelling, forces Shiri to make hard choices.
“The Last One to Leave” also addresses Holocaust themes. Here, Havryil is a German Jew, now a Displaced Person called Jim. He is sent to Tasis, north of Victoria, to work on a logging crew.
An accident—The Dark and Other Love Stories abounds in tragedies—leaves Havryil a solitary resident, speaking to no one. When Sydney, a local reporter, becomes curious about the man living alone in the crude cabin, her human interest story becomes a marriage of long standing. As logging in Tahsis dries up, the population dwindles. The couple lives in the crude cabin, growing older together. If I skimp on detail, it’s because to tell more would spoil it for readers.
There isn’t a weak story in this collection. An adult alcoholic recalls his charming, hopeless drunk of a father in “I Am Optimus Prime”. In “Todd”, an alcoholic young father desperately tries to pull his life together when a crow takes up residence in his apartment. All the love in the world can’t stop a child from running away in “Flight”. In “Hard Currency”, a famed Russian-American writer revisits his Russian homeland but cannot summon his beloved grandmother. In “Steve and Lauren: Three Love Stories”, a married couple moves with dizzying speed from their early married years through childrearing and midlife crisis, literally waking to find themselves in old age:
Life seemed so solid once, but now it had melted like Dali’s watch and slipped through their fingers. They read over their tax returns, looked at the photos, and decided they’d lived a good life, without tragedy or scandal, Did this make them a success? Had it been the goal? Was it enough?
The most skilled practitioners of literature place us in the lived experience of another while entertaining us. For all the times somebody has written of art’s critical role in society, thus wearing the words thin, the empathy engendered by fine books like The Dark and Other Stories is as necessary now as it was in 1939. This is most unfortunate. Fortunately, it’s a great book. And like all great books, it will outlive this moment in history.
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