The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw

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The nine brilliant short stories in this award-winning collection center on black women whose conflicts are influenced by their relationship to the church. I knew that the church’s influence on the black community was strong, but welcomed this frank look at how that plays out in individual lives.

In the first story “Eula” two forty-year-old women are getting ready to celebrate the last New Year’s Eve of the twentieth century. They have been friends for many years and, more recently, occasional sexual partners. Yet while our narrator is honest about her sexuality, Eula still wants a church-approved marriage. Most women will remember, as I did, the many times a female friend has ditched them for a man, real or fantasy. Still, it’s hard to resist those lifelong teachings. Setting the story at the turn of the century adds metaphorical resonance to this intimate story.

“Peach Cobbler” explores a teenaged girl’s conflicts with her mother, here lifted out of the ordinary by the mother’s longtime affair with their pastor. The push and pull of the young narrator with her mother, the pastor, and the church drive the story and add subtlety and nuance to the whirl of emotions teenaged girls experience.

Each story is a master class in voice. The women who narrate them are different in many ways—age, sexuality, experience, location—giving each a voice that is more than distinctive; it is unforgettable. As with any voice that we create on a page, each is formed by what the character says—the vocabulary they use, the details they notice, the opinions they voice—and how they say it—the diction, sentence structure, even the sounds of the words. Along with these, voice comes from the character’s values and biases, their dreams and regrets, the weight of their life experience.

We’ve been talking in my writing workshops about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Whether introvert or extrovert, we all have developed ways to protect our private selves. Yet this reticence is exactly what we must set aside to write. Risky? You bet.

New York Times best-selling author Robin LaFevers says:

In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us . . . We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place. We need to get some skin in the game. It should cost us something emotionally to tell our stories.

Award-winning children’s and young adult author Meg Rosoff suggests exploring our unconscious to open up our stories:

Authentic voice comes from unconscious. Examine the connection between the conscious (small) and the unconscious (big, scary; conflict, darkness and death) mind . . . Your past is stored in the unconscious, your own ghosts, the things you don’t want to think about. The best, most surprising, most thrilling writing comes from the unconscious, not the conscious mind. Conscious writing won’t resonate, and your reader won’t feel that they’ve connected with a real person

Fiction gives us a way to explore these raw, sometimes scary places. Through the characters in a story, both writers and readers can go where we might otherwise hesitate to venture.

What makes these stories so powerful are the characters, their strong voices, their willingness to open their hearts. Their vulnerability enables readers to recognise all that we have in common no matter how different our individual experience might be.

And this is the great gift stories offer us.

What book of short stories have you read recently?

A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet

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By coincidence, I read this book immediately after Rumaan Alam’s novel, so two novels in a row that imagine how the looming climate catastrophe might play out.

Here our narrator is teenaged Eve. A group of families, including hers, have taken a vacation home beside a lake. The twelve children of various ages are turned loose on their own while their parents indulge themselves. The children are so disgusted by their parents’ hedonistic antics that they refuse to acknowledge which set of adults belongs to them; it becomes a contest to see who can keep from being outed.

Eve is especially protective of her little brother Jack, who is curious and innocent, fragile in some ways and tough in others. One of the adults gives him a children’s bible which he comes to believe explains everything about the world, for example deciding that “God” really means “nature.”

A massive hurricane strikes, downing trees, flooding the area and the house, knocking out electricity and internet. In a reversal of Lord of the Flies, it is the children who decamp to the treehouse where they care for each other, while the adults, ignoring the fact that their children are missing, party even harder.

I certainly know some upper-class parents whose neglect of their children is epic, yet even they would flinch at sending their children to live in the woods during a hurricane while they themselves indulge in orgies of adulterous sex, alcohol and drugs. Adding to the sense that we’re in a fairy tale rather than the real world is the fact whenever the children get in trouble, we get magical, deus ex machina rescues.

With the flood, our narrator’s name, and Jack’s book as rather obvious clues, not to mention the cover, it’s pretty easy to line up the characters with their biblical counterparts. However, I think most readers would prefer, as I do, the satisfaction of puzzling out a story rather than having it made so easy.

Unlike the adults, the children are realistic and age-appropriate. Eve and Jack’s characters are nuanced and believable, while the others are less so; I actually had trouble keeping the other children straight, much less the unnamed parents. Of course, we are getting the adults through Eve’s eyes, and she’s at an age when parents cannot do anything right.

Millet’s decision to use a child’s point of view to accuse the older generation of indulging themselves instead of actually doing something to avert the climate catastrophe is brilliant. It really is the children who will bear the brunt of the disaster coming towards us. Still, it’s hard to take that threat seriously when the characters we care about are always being magically lifted to safety. When characters are forced to overcome obstacles, not only do they grow but we readers also experience their triumph. That experience is missing here.

Also missing is a larger sense of the world and society. These are privileged people. True, we run into some one-percenters who are even more aloof and protected from any danger than these families, yet we don’t see people of color, middle-class workers, the poor or elderly—the people who, just as in this pandemic, will suffer the most in a climate apocalypse. Thus, the real extent of the terror and loss is missing, an enormous iceberg hidden below the waves.

As in the Alam novel, the tone of Millet’s book veers between dramatic and satirical, the latter inviting you to view the story as a fairy tale or a parable—nothing that could happen in real life. That’s a shame. This book could have been a good wake-up call about the coming climate catastrophe and the need to make the world safe for our children.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

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This highly praised novel was my book club’s selection for this month. A well-to-do white couple vacationing in a rented home in the Hamptons with their two teenaged children hear a knock at the door late on their second night. They open to find a middle-aged black couple who say they are the owners of the house. G.H. and Ruth say that while they were out for the evening in New York City there was a massive blackout covering the whole Northeast, and they were afraid to try to return to their apartment.

They thought they’d be safer coming to their home in the Hamptons. Of course there is no way to check their story. Although considering themselves liberal, Amanda and Clay are suspicious, even when G.H. offers to refund their money if he and Ruth can stay in the basement mother-in-law apartment until the blackout is over.

That negotiation is an incredible piece of writing. The author captures nuances of behavior, such as G.H. holding up his hands “in a gesture that was either conciliatory or said Don’t shoot. By his age, black men were adept at this gesture.” We are in Amanda’s point of view and she is far more suspicious than her husband, suggesting they might be the handyman and maid come to rob them. She feels ashamed for thinking that, but not for the thought that goes with it: “those people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house.”

I was immediately reminded of an incident when I lived on the edge of a wealthy neighborhood that decided to hire its own security force to supplement the city’s police. One of their first actions was to arrest an older black man coming out of his home in his pajamas and slippers to get the morning paper. He didn’t look like the sort of person to own a house in that neighborhood.

Alam’s novel shifts gears several times as the situation worsens. Strange things begin happening, signaling that the problem is more than just a blackout. We cycle between different characters’ points of view, adults and teens.

Unfortunately, while G.H. and Ruth are presented as finely drawn, complex characters, the white family are superficial and implausible. It’s not that there aren’t people like them, but real people are far more complex than these sitcom-type characters. I had to chuckle. Turnabout is fair play, of course. How often have white authors written black characters as simple stereotypes?

Yet it made the story seem more like a fairy tale than something that could really happen, which is a shame since the themes are important ones: how can we find ways to get along, how can we cope with the crisis that seems closer every day.

The book is certainly suspenseful, as everyone in my book club agreed. Yet most of us were disappointed that it didn’t go deeper. As drawn, the white characters are such easy targets. I would have loved to see more of the nuanced writing that was displayed in that night-time scene.

What is your book club reading?