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WidowReview - Widow
Stories
by Michelle Latiolais
Bellevue Literary Press, 2011
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jul 3rd 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 27)

 

Michelle Latiolais's collection of short stories is a series of poetic reflections on the themes of love, grief, loneliness and loss. If some of the subject matter seems bleak, Latiolais' treatment shows that even the darkest moments provide opportunities for the realization of tenderness and love. It is not that Latiolais puts a brave face on her characters and “looks for the positive”. Rather, by exploring the depths of grief she shows how bereavement tears away the protective veneer of life as usual to reveal the visceral intimacies of life. It is like a layer of skin has been peeled aside to reveal the beauty of the organs beneath. Such revelations do not come without pain, and Latiolais is unsparing in her rendering of the agonies of loss. But having rendered pain with unflinching honesty she is freed to present the full range of experience with clarity and candour.

The seventeen stories of this collection vary as much in length as they do in the roles of their main protagonists. The central characters are invariably women, and the stories provide a range of perspectives on the opening story Widow. In Widow a recently bereaved woman faces the thoughtless banter of a young male gynecologist. Later she reflects on her new and unwelcome status as a widow. This story introduces readers to a character who will reappear: the noticing, reflecting, female observer keenly aware of the pretenses of day to day relationships and of her own desires. There are stories about a “young woman” and others about a more mature woman but always the central character is an observer, someone who is taking notes, filing things away, and reporting on what she sees. Over the course of the book the reader learns more of the experiences and observations of the protagonist of the title story, until the final story reveals the events that resulted in her widowhood.

Latiolais' characters have wide interests, so there is plenty to keep the reader engaged. Protagonists reflect on the origins of words, unintended double meanings, and accidental poetic allusions. Latiolais likes the minutiae of things. She gives us such details as the difference between an oyster knife and a clam knife, the names for the parts of a church, the history of dog breeding, and the names of some unusual flowers. Latiolais also renders the details of her characters' emotional lives, whether they are children at a wedding, adults learning and practicing the subtle deceits of relationships, or her recurring central character, the widow who gives us her unadorned views from the perspective of the recently bereaved.

The stories of this collection hang together thematically, although they vary a lot in context and settings. The Legal Case is a story that shocks in an unexpected way, but which renders observations of an everyday relationship disconcerting and disturbing. In Burqa Latiolais takes us to an exotic setting, but with an observation that is unsettling for its sheer ordinariness. Place is set in one of those “modern” young people's churches where “hip” is a convention of Lutheran austerity, Crazy uses theater as a model for a study in the multiple levels of duplicity and pretense. Through all of this Latiolais' writing is crisp and satisfying. Already a recipient of an award for her novel Even Now Latiolais' writing exudes self-confidence and a certain elan that is both engaging and invigorating. Widow looks set to augment Latiolais' reputation as a writer of the heart, with the proviso that there is no concession to sentiment.

 

© 2012 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand


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