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by Joyce Carol Oates
Akashic Books, November 2019
288 pages
ISBN: 1617757616

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Joyce Carol Oates introduces her collection of short stories by women writers by asking the question, "Is there a distinctive female noir?" She goes on to note that noir itself is open to rather a loose definition: it is not "a specific subject matter, but rather a sort of (dark) music: a sensibility, a tone, an atmosphere."

After providing an evocative list of noir novels, films, poems, she finally concludes the exegesis with a perhaps inevitable reference to Hemingway: In To Have and Have Not, Harry Morgan's final words "are sheer noir, despair raised to the level of wisdom: '...a man alone ain't got no bloody chance.'"

But what of woman alone? Judging on the basis of the excellent selection of stories Oates has chosen for her anthology, she isn't alone that often, even though she may have to act without a confederate at times. Though Oates doesn't quite say it, the male noir hero is rarely strictly alone - he is operating within a structure which is, no matter how inimical, essentially male as he is himself. When we turn to the female noir figure, however, she must invariably confront that same male framework and she may have few allies to depend upon. Edwige Danticat's "Please Translate" is a case in point. It consists of a transcription of a series of voicemail messages, translated from the original Haitian, left by a frantic wife to her estranged husband. He has her four-year-old son. She is desperate to have him back. In the forty-one brief messages, she begs, she pleads, she bargains, she promises, she threatens, and, since this is a transcription of the husband's mail box, she speaks into an echoing silence. The appeal of the title is directed less to official society than to the reader.

If she is not alone, that does not mean she can turn to other women. Sometimes she can find an ally, but sometimes, she will discover that other women may be in an alliance, mean girl style, against her. That's more or less what's going in the story that leads off the collection, Livia Llewellyn's "One of These Nights." Or the protagonist turns on the woman she believes is as culpable as the man (father/husband) who has wronged them both. SJ Rozan's "A History of the World in Five Objects" and, spectacularly, Lisa Lim's graphic "The Hunger" are compelling examples.

As the collection progresses, the protagonists become more consciously analytical. In "Impala," by S.A. Solomon, a young woman, teenager, really, who is fleeing a sticky situation at home does not hesitate to act when she senses a threat from a man who has stopped to help her change a tire. In Valerie Martin's very different "Il Grifone," the mystery writer narrator deals equally effectively, if less directly, with a man who is threatening her safety, though the men around her do not believe her when she identifies him as a menace.

The fifteen stories are accompanied by several of Margaret Atwood's early poems, an inspired choice on Oates' part. The reader will be well-advised to read the stories in the order they appear rather than dipping in and out as one commonly does with collections. If she does, she will notice an underlying narrative of increasing awareness of the female condition and a growing determination to shatter its constraints. It's a narrative that concludes with Oates' own gripping "Assassin," which she describes as "a surrealist excursion into the dark places of the (female) heart." Here the titular assassin grasps the severed head of her perceived oppressor and announces, "I am thinking, and when I am finished thinking, I will know more clearly what to do, and I am not taking orders from you, my man, or from any man ever again."

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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