Reviewed by Jack Messenger
She Receives the Night
by Robert Earle
Vine Leaves Press
ISBN 9781925417371, 268 pages, May 2017
Robert Earle’s admirable new collection of short stories ‘tells the stories of women everywhere from New Mexico to Melbourne. They are young and old. Their lives are the landscape of the heart.’ As described by the publisher, that is an ambitious undertaking for any writer – especially perhaps for a male writer – and one that requires immense artistry and intelligence. Earle has these things in abundance, and he uses them to compelling effect. Many of these stories are gems of the form; they feel inevitable, surprising, effortless.
These are all stories in which things actually happen, and to persons in whom one can take a real interest; at the same time, many of the stories are political, in the broadest sense of that term. In ‘Trouble Sleeping’, for example, Elizabeth is provoked to step outside her role as an immigration official when she listens to Marta Carrasco, a refugee from El Salvador. Marta is unable to disclose her dreadful trauma in anything other than fragments; Elizabeth is obliged to respond as a human being. She concludes: ‘What happened somewhere happened everywhere. What happened to someone happened to everyone.’ This realization – personal and political in equal measure – requires the relinquishment of certainties, of prejudices, of accepted ways of thinking:
She listened to the night, the insects in the garden, and imagined driving through Melbourne to Marta’s apartment building – the clarity of nocturnal urban solitude, night’s way of averaging the upscale and downtrodden into a mean of sprawling mystery, Elizabeth not knowing where anything ultimately led, no captions, no charts, no directions, her dreams before dawn wandering up and down the avenues, peering into darkened windows.
That is also a lovely piece of writing in a rich American tradition, and entirely typical.
‘After Apple-Picking’ – after Robert Frost’s poem of the same name – describes how Angela, a state’s attorney in New Mexico, has her life whittled away by her employer, by society: ‘They started taking things from her. First, the marriage, then the job.’ She gives up her possessions and her home, and takes to the road with Howlie, part-wolf part-dog. Angela thus claims a desperate kind of freedom.
The kinds of structural violence that inhibit legitimate autonomy and freedom emerge in all sorts of settings. The telegraphese of ‘The Frying Pan’ captures the frantic pace and unfairness of family life:
Pee brush teeth let Frank shower snip beard nose eyebrows choose right suit right shirt right shoes pull on robe wake Alissa Teddy Sealie downstairs everyone milk orange juice waffles.
‘Birth’ is exceptionally good, and only a few pages long:
Somehow their marriage got caught in the car engine and it blew up. First it ground to a halt, then it smoked, then came the fire and the explosion … She felt the thud drifting into her chest as she stood on the soft shoulder and then she saw it illuminate Hal’s face with a purple powdery light, a light full of recrimination.
She had made the car do this.
‘The Woods’ – another reference to Robert Frost – is a terrific tale about the struggle for selfhood amid the pressures of family and society: ‘People close to you spoke as if they were inside you, which they weren’t, and knew all about you, which they didn’t.’ This kind of observation is powerfully resonant for readers because we know it is hard-won; it resists a person’s efforts to bring it to conscious awareness.
‘What Now, Widow?’ is that rare animal, a story set in classical Rome which is utterly convincing. Seneca’s widow tells us:
Most of what he wrote (excepting the tragedies) contradicted his experience. He insisted he considered this his civic duty.
‘To lie?’ I asked.
‘Someone has to praise friendship, mercy, generosity, dispassion, or where else would these things be found? Not here. Not in Rome.’
‘A Life’ is exactly that, an astonishing accomplishment that begins with a girl and ends with an old woman. ‘Do You Even Know I Exist?’ is a marvellously real account of family tensions whose controlling metaphors and images are quite perfect:
A message appeared on Alison’s smartphone accompanied by a photo of a woman who looked like what she’d look like in a few years. The message read: ‘Do you even know I exist?’ Sender: Margot Morton.
‘Into the Dark Soil’ is, I think, a particularly effective depiction of wilful ignorance; Katherine shuts her eyes to evil and guilt and responsibility even as she is confronted by them in her own life.
The worst that can be said of She Receives the Night is that a few of the stories, although immensely readable, do not quite reach the high standard of the majority. I found ‘Through the Ice’ and ‘Who Has a Real Castle Where I Can Hide?’ to be too long. The latter story – about a South Korean sex worker – struggles to bring anything new to its subject. Lastly, ‘The Door’ is for me the only disappointment in the collection: far too long, it reads like an abridged novel and is misjudged.
Many of these stories were previously published separately. Now that they have been collected together in one volume, they should find a wider audience. They certainly deserve it.
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK