A housewife in the midst of a nervous breakdown, hurling dishes against the floor, suddenly overwhelmed by the horrors of motherhood. An imaginative little girl who lives with her grandparents and sees a mermaid at her baptism. A lesbian Holden Caulfield. These are the women Chavisa Woods watches and inhabits in her debut collection of short fiction, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind.
As Flannery O’Connor beckons us into the restless, gothic American south, and A.M. Homes backs us into bizarre and frightening corners of our suburbia, Chavisa Woods guides us through a strange, troubling vision of domestic life in the rural U.S.
Woods veers, story to story, from a straightforward telling to a densely visual, sensuous and poetic mode, as well as from realism to fantasy. Even within her stories, she keeps readers suspended, unsure of what reality they have entered.
For instance, when, in "The Bell Tower," our narrator, a bell ringer in a small town, tells us she is a monster—"My hands are massive, paw-like. My hair is thick and coarse covering my body in patches. Black horns curl down round my ears"—we may accept the world as a phantasmagorical one, and the information as literal. However, as we discover that our narrator is the lover of a male buffalo, the physical description is re-engaged in our minds, as we consider it as metaphoric—a poetic illustration of the stigma imposed on the narrator by the other villagers.
And in "The Smallest Actions," Woods’ attention to subtle human gestures is so sensitive, so keen, that when a father smashes a lamp over his young daughter’s head, the story itself seems to burst apart, as if built too delicately to accommodate such an act. In this way the reader registers the violence of the event, experiencing a devastating shift of reality, and coming to understand the way abusive actions do, perhaps irrevocably, alter one’s consciousness.
What Woods brings to each of her stories is a startlingly acute emotional description of her characters as they grapple with loss, trauma, and identity—whether sleepwalking through their memories, or perched, wide-awake and hawk-eyed, on the outskirts of town.