CULTURE & ARTS

The Bottom Line: ‘Goodnight, You Beautiful Women’ By Anna Noyes

Noyes’ characters grope around in the dark for meaning in their rural hometowns.

Energized by the stillness of domesticity, a man begins to throw his belongings into the quarry behind his home: knives and fragile china, cast away and sinking. When his wife wakes up to find a dusty absence where their refrigerator once was, she knows to worry. Soon after, he throws himself into the quarry, too. 

It's an odd scene that could be thought of as parabolic, until in breaches into cloudy, incomprehensible territory. Like the man's grieving wife, we're left in a haze of earthy images.

"Hibernation," the first story in Anna Noyes' biting collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women isn't about the man's illness, but his wife's response to it. She works to make sense of his erratic behavior and to accept that he's gone for good; she struggles to comprehend her own fritz of feelings, hollowness tinged with guilt-ridden relief. 

The quarry reappears in another of the collection’s stories, “The Quarry,” in which two sisters are cautioned against swimming by their mother, who offhandedly warns them about yeast infections. Collette, 10, follows the rules, even after an encounter with a sinister male babysitter leaves her disillusioned with the adult world. She’s thrown further askew when she spots her 15-year-old sister flirting with the man near the quarry, diving in and laughing intimately. We feel Collette’s loneliness congealing, even if she doesn’t make sense of it yet herself. She lashes out, leaving a dead bug on her sister’s pillow, waking her up to make sure she sees it.

In another story that examines the lasting effects of abuse, a young woman reveals her compassion for her father, even if she felt compelled to run away from him. She winds up taking advantage of her new, adoptive family, and reflects on her own deviancy, “Why do I do what I do? When I was little I’d wake up in the night and pee in the wicker wastebasket in the living room. I did this for months. The house was thick with the smell, and dad blamed it on the dog. I knew he was thinking of getting rid of our dog, and I did it again, and he got rid of her. I really don’t know why, I just did it because.”

The brave women in Noyes’s stories speak in their own assured voices, weather-worn by gusty Maine winters and steady in spite of a cracked foundation. We follow their winding paths toward self-awareness, which can hit like a glass shattering on craggy earth, if it ever comes.

These women aren’t in control of their sexual awakenings -- many are introduced to their own physicality by fumbling intruders -- but they are in charge of their reactions, which often involve fleeing to freedom, over and over, at the expense of others.

Noyes is among a bevy of women cataloging the whirring dangers of youth, among them Lindsey Hunter and her page-turning novel of female friendship Ugly Girls, and Robin Wasserman, whose Girls on Fire follows a Nirvana-loving pair and their suburban exploits. But unlike her ilk, Noyes does nothing to romanticize rough-and-tumble girlhood. She plunges into it, floats in its muddiness, and emerges to gaze on it without appraisal, like a hiker meditating on a pond. 

The bottom line

Women combat the bleak Maine wilderness and more insidious dangers within their own homes in a debut as rich and quiet as a walk in the dark. 

Who wrote it

This is Anna Noyes’s debut short story collection. Her fiction has appeared in Vice, A Public Space, and Guernica.

Who will read it

Fans of quiet short stories, earthy language, and fiction centered on women’s experiences.

What do other reviewers think

Kirkus: “These flawed female characters struggle to survive against threats both external and internal in this well-written debut.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “Noyes has a fluid, raw, and strikingly original manner with both language and emotion, and much of the writing in this collection is tender and innovative.”

Opening lines

Joni called the sheriff right after it happened. Her voice was clear and steady, and the line she used was the right one. I believe my husband has drowned in the quarry by our house.

Notable passage

I look back. Bert’s standing outside the store, our two hot chocolates in his hands. His gray-blonde hair is blowing like seeds from a kicked dandelion.

“Turn around,” I say, but she won’t.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women
By Anna Noyes
Grove Atlantic, $24.00
Publishes June 7, 2016

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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