on Michelle Latiolais’s art of bereavement.
Bellevue Literary Press, February 2011. 192 pp.
Michelle Latiolais’s characters know a thing or two about grief and loss, and about the painful journey of self-healing. In Latiolais’s first novel Even Now, an adolescent gets caught between the warring of her narcissistic parents; in her follow-up, A Proper Knowledge, a middle-aged psychiatrist, isolated and mourning his long-dead sister, falls for a woman wrapped tightly within her own protective shroud. Now, with Widow, Latiolais wades bravely and directly back into that fearsome terrain, this time in short story form, making fine use of her predilection for suspended moments, imagistic details, and juxtaposition. Part meditation on connections and disconnections, part fictionalized memoir written in the wake of her husband’s death, these stories, narrated in each instance by a female voice if not necessarily a bereaved one, conjure a shifty world in which most everyone is scarred from the routine violence of living. They shift in style from essayistic to impressionistic, and vary widely in scope: some moments unfold in paragraphs and minutes, while others span pages and years. Their story lines are often deceptively slim and static, as Latiolais’s characters attend a church service or wander into a strip club, sit through a dismal first date or stand ironing napkins for a dinner party, against a backdrop of museums, doctor’s offices, rural Uganda or a Los Angeles coffee shop. That’s because Latiolais’s true narrative focus is on the inner landscape of her protagonists. Even other characters come off as slight and peripheral, mere reference points for the common preoccupations of the narrators.
Take “Caduceus,” one of the two Pushcart-nominated stories contained in Widow: it opens on a new widow, standing before her coffee grinder, nearly overwhelmed by the dawn of another day. Her heart races, and again, she tries to argue herself into making an appointment so that the doctor can calm her hyperthyroidism:“You’ll stress your heart,” the doctor kept saying to her, “there will be damage.” She had tried not to laugh in his face, damage! How clever and heart-stoppingly witless they were, these tenders of the body, how poised for perception that they’d never tumble to…Like many of the book’s damaged narrators, this one doesn’t hold much faith in treatment and repair: the nameless women of Widow are young and old and middle-aged, but never afraid to endure life’s shattered moments. (Elsewhere she will be perplexed at the very notion that someone could want to study another’s mind and simultaneously tinker with its chemistry.) Though often coolly observant, she never opts to intellectualize away pain. Profoundly sensitive, the “she” of these stories can be thin-skinned, now and again perhaps too on alert for wounds to lick, but she is no shrinking violet or gentle martyr. “She” speaks with a voice flecked with sly humor, and possesses a strength born of unflinching vulnerability.