The Dark and Other Love Stories

by Deborah Willis

By Aritha van Herk

Hamish Hamilton
2017/$29.95/256 pp.

The Dark and Other Love Stories composes a bouquet of generosity, a complex sensitivity to the ecosystem of love. These stories, Calgary writer Deborah Willis’s second collection, shine a light into ghostly corners that are so often ignored in the clash and discord of contemporary fiction, especially those that announce or denounce contemporary “love.” Instead, they anatomize love beautifully because they are dark, unyielding in their examination of the dimensions of loyalty and trust, how humans yearn, not for wild passion, but for a “discrete gentle person you could trust.” The “trust” embedded in these narratives takes on a depth and resonance that is brilliantly unorthodox for its combination of innocence and carnality.

All of the 11 stories here approach the bravery and cowardice of darkness, the shadow life hanging between earth and sky. Lovers in that darkness are suspended, hesitant, reluctant in their encounters. And the love depicted is diverse: love for a child, a marriage, a parent, a friend, a crow, the secretive love of writers for their own invented narratives. The stories are set at summer camp, in suburbs and on isolated islands, in Saint Petersburg, Vancouver and other disembodied cities. Specific and yet hauntingly detached, they explore the strange disorientation that love can cause.

Particularly striking in the writing is Willis’s use of subtle violence, how small acts transgress much more than actual physical harm. Boys “travel in packs like stray dogs” and injured animals echo their wildness. The cruelties of choice and rejection compete with one another. But while unsettling and startling the reader, the stories are also, despite their enigmatic focus, wickedly funny. “Girlfriend on Mars,” for example, is a lament by a hydroponic marijuana grower for his girlfriend, who has abandoned him because she has fallen in love with Mars. Its mixture of jocularity and ruefulness targets perfectly a sense of unrecoverable love.

Willis’s writing in this collection is pliable and smooth. It draws no attention to its artifice, performs no contrivance. That clarity is a large element in the success of these stories; they pull us in with genuine warmth, an intimacy that transcends romance or amour. One character asks: “Why do we love who we love? And why does love die?” beside the question “Why do we kill love?” There are memorable lines, such as “the dignity of some old women—the ones who remember being beautiful, the ones who know they still are.” These stories will glow with beauty for years to come, and if they are dark, they are also lambent with intelligence.

–Aritha van Herk’s latest is Stampede and the Westness of West.

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