Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Why She Loves Him
By Wendy James
May 2009, 240pp, PB, ISBN: 9781921401190
There’s something rather compulsive about the short story form. Perhaps it’s because you can read the entire work from start to finish in a single sitting. It’s all begun and completed in one mouthful; the full hit without delaying the gratification. Perhaps it’s because short stories require the writer to provide us with fast closure compression of character and setting. It’s more pointed than a novel – a moment in time, an evocative glimpse through the window of another world that leaves our own more or less unaltered. Wendy James’ short stories are intense and painful in a way that the magazine styled book cover doesn’t really hint at. Pick these up expecting chick-lit, and you’d probably be disappointed. There’s little that’s light or easy to swallow here.
The pieces in this book are no less compelling for their brevity or intensity. Nearly all of the stories move forward through character development, shot through with almost intolerable longing, a sense of tragedy, and some kind of aberration or missed connection. The longest story in the book is the title story, provided last as a mini novella. The story “Why She Loves Him: A Sequence” is postmodern in structure, moving in Joycean fashion between tense, person, and format shifts without ever losing its way or momentum. Though the question posed in the title remains in our head throughout the story, we never quite get the answer, though it’s part of James’ skill as a writer that we begin to answer for ourselves.
The key male object or antagonist Jimmy (there are at least two) in this story is thoroughly unlovable on every level, unlike the two daughters who wait for the protagonist Meg at home, or even the watery but kind husband she has left behind. So the only answer to the question of why Meg loves Jimmy is that she is drawn to the punishment of his presence. It’s a kind of psychological self-immolation that may be unique to women. The worst and best thing about this story is that the reader is drawn in to Meg’s story — and begins to understand and believe just how feasible it is. It makes you want to hug your own children through the shivering it provokes.
There’s a strong parallel between this last piece and the first one, “Spirit of Progress,” about a mother who has left her son in the care of her own mother, while she tries to save up enough money to join the boy’s father, her one-time lover, in England. The longing is set against the boy’s own longing for his real mother, made concrete by the toy train she gives him. The contrast of day to day reality with the desire of the imaginary unmet promise makes for a powerful story where the beauty of James’ prose contrasts sharply with the ugliness of the actions:
Elsie leaves him squatting there at the corner. She turns to wave but he’s not looking, is still scrabbling about in the dirt. She takes another step and feels a sudden sharp sting at the back of her calf. And then another on the back of her neck. And then more – little pellets hitting her back, her shoulders, her head. She looks behind her. The boy is standing up now, and is throwing pebbles, little bits of gravel that he’s collected from the roadside. (11, “Spirit of Progress”)
Other stories take us to the point of epiphany, from the horror of a moment before death in “Head On”, to the placid fantasies of a broken father in “A Real Man”. In all of these stories, we want to distance ourselves from these flawed characters, whose impetus we might understand even as we’re recoiling. James deals with this sensation directly in the self-referential “Curving Towards the Round,” where she sketches the outline of a negative character – a foil: “In life, though we don’t really see him, we know he’s someone we’re not.” Most of the characters in these stories — from the bad mothers and worse daughters to the bad husbands and even worse boyfriends — are people we’re definitely not. But coupled with our ability to distance ourselves with the hugs that we instinctively give our children when we put down the book after each story — is that awful sense of recognition – the realisation that they aren’t so alien after all. These are grey shades of humanity that aren’t so foreign, though we might like to think so. It’s scary and eye opening. This is a powerful collection of stories, that manages to toe the line between postmodern and classic.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.