The narrator in the final story in Natalie Serber's collection, Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June, 2012) describes her contrary opinion regarding a book (set in Afghanistan, hint hint), selected by her suburban book club. She says she found "the novel's perfectly balanced shape boring, as if the novel itself had been raised in a confined space, like a veal calf." She prefers "messy to symmetrical, feral to polite, because isn't feral the truth?" This final story, so full of the feral -- an unapologetic teenaged son in flagrante before his mother's eyes, a teenaged daughter saying I love you or I fuck you, we can't tell, kids talking about cutting, cross-dressing and body-piercing -- is, however, the least of the stories in this absorbing collection. It confirms the narrator's assessment, that the feral, the messy, is the truth, but not when the writer sets out in search of it. Still, if this story is too full of the kind of detail culled from life, the little observations that seem quaint and anecdotal, witty and absurd but rarely translate with as much panache into written form, it makes the previous ten stand out all the more for Serber's masterful observation of the grit of human choice and circumstance.
Serber's main characters, Ruby and Nora, don't simply love, they ache for it, second-guessing themselves even as they fling themselves off the high cliffs of certitude toward the waiting arms of their imagined lovers, listening, as Ruby does, "for her name, for love, but (hearing) only syllables," as the men expend their bodies, but rarely their hearts, upon these women. The imagery in the stories that deal with the lives -- together and apart -- of these two characters is threaded, one to the other, and never more perfectly than in the sequences relating to the chaos and beauty of their womanhood. In 'Alone As She Felt All Day,' Ruby subsists on cereal and alcohol all summer, looks at her hipbones that "flared like conch shells beneath her skin (and) liked to imagine Marco pressing his ear to her, telling her he could hear the ocean." She tries to force herself to abort a pregnancy, and freshly abandoned by Marco, she swims through a choppy ocean and watches "her blood in the private red sky behind her eyelids," and longs for some of it, just a little, to flow out from between her legs. Much later, in 'Take Your Daughter to Work,' Nora -- the daughter who would not only refuse to be aborted but also escape being given up for adoption -- watches this same woman, her mother, elevate the legs of one of her students, Elena, trying to keep that blood in her, the blood that smells "like buried nails, sharp and old," trying to save a life.
Serber is gifted at the art of understatement, everything revealed with a sentence. In 'A Whole Weekend of My Life,' Nora, trying to convince her imagined father that she had "plenty of room for lawn mowers, half sisters and a dad," contemplates the grey smudges of smoke on the fan above the beds in their hotel room which they share for one night, and while she listens to him talk to his real family, she considers that "this must be the type of conversation someone would light a cigarette for." As an adult, as she walks past houses that contain other kinds of lives, Nora imagines "the loose connections of family in the hours between dinner and bed," in the smell of cooking onions, the flashes of blue light, the calls of "I'm in the kitchen," and the reader, knowing the highs and the much more numerous lows of Nora's life, yearns right along with her for such mundane normality, the kind of normalcy enjoyed, perhaps, by a father who has a new German wife, twin daughters and two basset hounds named Captian and Tennille, all packed into a ranch house in Fort Lauderdale.
In 'Plum Tree,' Ruby asks Nora "Are you happy?" And Nora (or is it Serber?) reflect thus: It was such a weird thing for a mother to ask. Therein lies the tension in these stories. It is what a mother who has not struggled as Ruby has -- with a drunken and abusive father, a mother who has embraced her victimhood, an unwanted pregnancy, errant lovers, single-parenthood, tough students with their own litany of woes -- may never need to ask, convinced that they have done all they can to be assured of an answer in the affirmative. Yet it is the question that outlasts every other question that a mother asks, not of her daughter, but of herself: Is she happy? (And, if not, am I to blame? Could I make her happy?) It is the question that a daughter often answers, often wordlessly, with a yes, as grown up Nora does to an aging alcoholic Ruby who dislikes Nora's choice of partner, the steady, loving older man, the daddy-finally-found.
There is an element of the miraculous in a collection of stories whose characters reveal the fundamental predicament of all parents and children: to make new mistakes that, inevitably, leave us with few joys and deep regrets. To swear, as Ruby does, to defy her mother's manthra, to "learn to shift my expectations, to learn that some things in life you just have to put up with," and, decades later, end up with a daughter her own age who looks at Ruby, her "mother with a terrible sense of direction" -- in all possible iterations of that word, we've come to learn -- and says "I've never been young, Mom." Five simple words more damning than any speech full of reference to specific incident could ever be. At the end of that particular story, 'Rate My Life,' Nora sets out to dismantle her 'good' life such that the next day, when she returns to the man who is willing to do for her what Marco had never been willing to do for her mother, "she would be unforgivable." As is every character in this collection including the first, the title story, a stand-alone meditation of a mother observing her daughter sinking into the quick-sand of anorexia, within sight but out of reach. That story is also the one that gives us the texture of forgiveness that every flawed character in this collection ultimately receives from the people who love them. It ends with these words: " Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her. Say her lovely name. Know that it is up to her. Shout her lovely name."
Serber, a mindful, competent writer, one clearly writing not from some high plane of solitude but from within the mess of life, guides us lightly to the end of this collection and leaves us there, holding on to a single, profound truth: nothing that anybody does is traceable entirely to the people who raised them; it is up to them to live, to evolve, to hurt and be hurt. To be as unforgivable as they are -- as we all are -- deserving of forgiveness.
Follow Ru Freeman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RuFreeman