I might be the only person in Ireland to have read Debra Leigh Scott’s blistering collection of inter-related short stories, Other Likely Stories (Sowilo Press). It’s possible. With an estimated 100,000 new works of fiction published each year in the US alone, I believe it is impossible any longer to claim to be abreast of the new releases in even one or two genres — most of us end up not straying too far from the highly publicised, the prize-winners, or the local. So, to find a new author, and to come away as fulfilled as this, is always a joy.
Leigh Scott is a busy woman: writer, playwright, dramaturge, educator, documentary film-maker and reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. She founded and runs the Hidden River Arts Centre in Philadelphia, PA, and runs the annual Eludia Award for unpublished female writers which, I feel I better admit right now, I was delighted to win in 2014. How else, out of all the millions of books available, did Other Likely Stories end up flopping through my letterbox in County Kildare, Ireland?
So, a book bought purely out of curiosity…. no personal recommendation, no hype, no idle chance of an intriguing cover catching my eye in the corner of a crammed bookstore…pure nosiness.
Nine stories, two hundred pages, gestated over the course of a decade and finally brought together as a whole, Other Likely Stories is tense and involving from the first page. The stories link and weave together spanning the tumultuous two decades from 1955 to 1975 in small-town, southern USA. Sisters, brothers, fathers, grandparents knit and part, adding and subtracting, infusing the pages with love, hatred, abuse and despair. The darkest of themes are evoked; voodoo, incest, rape, neglect, and the book embraces the bleak. Running through, sometimes so faintly as to be a mere suggestion, hides the redeeming quality of sibling-love and the universal sisterhood. Not to suggest that the book divides mankind into black-and-white poles; evil man and saintly woman — far from it, the book is written in finely delineated shades of grey, and some of the most heinous acts are perpetrated by women, but they are very much women in a man’s world.
Set in large part in the desolate, isolated environments of the accommodation provided for the families of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, the women and their children begin a slow journey of self-discovery, “…her Mom used to listen to a blonde lady called Doris Day…now she listened to the College radio and learned how to write for newspapers.” Unfortunately for some, the awakening comes too late to undo the damage wrought upon them, and that they in their turn have inflicted. Stroking the pillow of the departed daughter, and wishing her well, will not suffice to compensate for years of abuse and outright endangerment, “the certainty of my mother’s uncontrollable fury…”. I cried slow, hot tears as the story “A kind of Heaven” drew to a close and at other times during the book.
Scattered throughout the collection we see glimmers of hope, shots at redemption, just enough to allow us never to despair, and, as parents, brothers, sisters drop out of narratives, or are lowered on their final journeys, we have enough optimism to keep us moving forward, to the end, to the act of bravery and self-care which comes in the final pages and allows us to draw a breath and whisper, maybe it’s going to be alright.
The collection is written chronologically, and although each story is strong enough to stand alone, a coherent narrative arc emerges when read from first page to last. I wouldn’t recommend dipping in and out, when the option to read from start to finish exists.
Debra Leigh Scott is soon to publish a novel, Piety Street, set in the crumbling, decadent New Orleans that she evokes so poignantly in the opening story of this collection, and I look forward to it with anticipation.
Orla Mcalinden http://orlamcalindenwrites.wordpress.com