Shoes Hair Nails, by Deborah Batterman

Full disclosure: Deborah and I are online acquaintances and agreed to exchange books. This short story collection is her first book, but I certainly hope it won't be her last.

Since I've been trying to learn more about book cover design, I first studied this one and my reactions to it. The title and the graphic of high-heeled, pointy-toed white satin slings decorated with braid and glitter would seem to indicate something in the chick lit genre. However, the way the flat, black background almost overbalances the shoes and white text tells me that these stories will be much darker than the usual froth of boyfriends and diets.

Sure enough, however innocuously these stories start—a mother's shoe collection, cleaning a new apartment, setting off to visit parents—they end up drilling deep into the characters' psyches and releasing unsuspected emotional truths. I found each story profoundly moving in its own way. Never having been a girly girl—I was a tomboy right from the start and didn't really know what to do with a jar of fingernail polish, much less a pumice stone or clay mask or other beauty accoutrements—I don't get chick lit. But I do know what it's like to lose someone dear to me and be overwhelmed with grief mixed with guilt. I do know what it's like to do without a parent and make the best of what I have.

Batterman excels at capturing the small details that make a character in a story seem like a real, if quirky, person you might meet in a grocery queue or at a bus stop. For example, there's a mother who dabs at things, dabbing her eyes or her children's cuts so that it's the father who has to take a child with a stitch-serious cut to the doctor. There's the man who thinks the sympathetic woman sitting next to him at a burger joint must be an alien from outer space: “The aliens always ask the right questions and always know what you're thinking.”

She's a master with images, too, and how they reinforce the story. The items named in the title each has its own story in which the image plays a part but does not intrude on the story, not an easy balance to achieve. For example, the narrator of one story has just moved out of her boyfriend's place into a much less desirable apartment. One of the features he first criticises is a partial wall extending halfway into the living room “Like an unfinished thought”. The hesitant half-wall placed me right in that space, that scary, can-I-make-it-on-my-own space.

Batterman also knows how to circle around a story and, as Emily Dickinson said, “tell it slant”. I regard as failures nearly all of those stories that have tried to address that terrible day in September when I lost two friends in the World Trade Center and the U.S. lost its sense of security. The only one that has worked for me so far only referred to it in the most oblique way. Batterman's final story succeeds because she approaches that day indirectly, through the emotions of one woman and her particular, small slice of the tragedy.

There's an element of forgiveness in many of the tales that I found particularly moving. I enjoyed these stories and even went back and reread a few of them. They seem true to me and to say something about our shared life as humans in this crazy world.

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