(Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2015)
The stories in Twelve Women in a Country Called America are as outstanding for their collective wisdom and distinctive voices as for their precise sentences. Cherry is a master of the short story form, but it is her skills with syntax that coalesce into huge pleasure payoffs. Her sentences achieve Baldwin’s goal of being “as clean as a bone,” while the collection’s title is true to the fact that they are also working towards a unity, a catalogue of the people, of the women—adrift or anchored—in this country. The magic here is part of a canon all her own. We learn much about the place known colloquially as America from how Cherry uses settings, but she focuses on evoking what happens when one’s expectations do not intersect cleanly with society’s expectations.
Cherry’s characters are positioned on fault lines of revelation. In “The Piano Lesson” the devastating lesson is that “time turns into death.” A music teacher’s hand dangles “skin loose like a too-large glove” while her young pupil Jessie wonders if earlier selves are historical. Slowly, and then propelled by the teacher’s coming unhinged, the girl senses that growing up is less of an achievement and, in fact, merely a precursor to growing old. It is not an opening, a blossoming, but a closing, perhaps a return to the nothingness of the dirt. What’s worse, she discerns that this is the big secret the world keeps. Later, riding in a car with her mother, Jessie experiences the terrible aloneness of receiving false comfort, soothing in the form of a simplicity she now knows is at odds with reality. Similarly, in “The Starveling,” Calista concludes that beauty does not make truth; “childhood was a lie.”
These fault lines and points where expectations should meet, but instead horribly part ways, are places where beliefs often shatter or take hold, and identity hardens or shape-shifts. Here is where Cherry succeeds at demonstrating that any individual’s desires are shaped by forces that, together, we can think of as a country. Cherry’s women share almost no demographic characteristics—only gender—but they are distinctly rooted in time and place, whether it be Texas, Florida, or Arkansas, and all must navigate relationships with men, whether it be suitors, the fathers of their children, or their own fathers.
Ramona Maria Prairie Moonlight Yglesias, a 35-year-old mother of twins born when she was twenty-nine, after their father had already left her, “applied for a job as Minnie Mouse but it went to college kid looking for summer work.” When Ramona herself is a college kid, a lifetime ago, “she tries on different handwritings like jeans, wondering which suits her best.” Communication is also at the heart of this collection – not just the substance of it, but the means in which it creeps into or ghosts itself from modern life. In “Au secours,” one of the collection’s most haunting stories, a disabled woman waiting for her husband to get out of prison muses that “another thing she does to make the days pass is spend time on the telephone…she would like more mail.” And it is isolation that drives some women, like the protagonist of “False Gods,” to break lifelong habits, as if by doing so they can also end loneliness; “how she longed for company, a partner, as one might long for a cup of cocoa on a cold day, or money in the bank.”
I know these characters; I have been these women; I am them now; I imagine I will become others if my time on earth stretches far enough so that I can claim the particular wisdom of old age. You know them, too. Yet they are surprising in a way that feels simultaneously inevitable, as only the best fiction can do.
Cherry’s prose has a simplicity undergirded by its quiet dignity and confidence. It assures us we are in the hands of a master craftswoman whose instrument is an extension of herself. Life is precious and terrible, above all, because it is fleeting; “if he could have pressed her smile into an album, like a flower, he would have.”
An organization called VIDA now matches statistics to what any woman, and some men, cannot help but observe: much more ink is spilled analyzing books published by men than by women, and more men are the ones wielding the critic’s pen. While the VIDA count has put publications on notice, 2014’s count shows that the Heavy Hitters remains a men’s club. Women had 153 review bylines in The New Yorker compared to 457 for men; 280 works authored by women received reviews in the shadow of 563 by men. This is a book that mirrors and magnifies a reality that many women still know: “girls told lies because that was the only kind of power permitted to them, the power to alter the world of appearances.”
At first, it may seem that these statistics can explain how Cherry is the author of more than twenty books, as well as the recipient of recognition that signals the level of artistry at which she is wielding language, yet her latest magnificent book has been greeted by silence from major publications. But there is another possibility I prefer, one that suggests they are late to Cherry’s party because we are in an era of so many big-name short story writers. In an August 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books essay on a new translation of Red Calvary, Cherry reflects on coming late to admiration of Isaac Babel: “Perhaps I was distracted by what seemed to be bigger names.” Add Cherry to the list of the writers you must read—to know her Americans is to know what it is to be human.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.