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The 15 stories in North Carolinian writer June Spence’s debut collection, Missing Women and Others, center around the powerful force of emotional longing, the all-encompassing desire for something or someone that is either just within or far beyond reach. Told sometimes in a quiet, introspective first person, sometimes in the removed, dispassionate voice of an unknown omniscient narrator, these stories are always more concerned with people than with plots.
There are no breathtaking or heartbreaking events that ultimately give way to preordained resolutions. There are only normal, even predictable, circumstances in the small, nondescript worlds of normal, even more predictable, characters. But it is precisely the sense of familiarity thus engendered that makes Spence’s talent shine. She has a clear eye for the drama of life’s mundane details. That, coupled with her subtle, skillful use of language, allows her to take what would, in a lesser writer’s hands, be nothing more than blather and turn it into a rich exploration of the complexities of human nature.
In “State of Repair,” the protagonist, Nell, comes to the slow realization that the two things that have anchored her life her marriage and her home are on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, her brother is trapped by the need to claim and gossip about his links to the numerous near-disasters happening all around him. The narrator weaves these two realities to show the many surprising and serendipitous “accidents” that can occur when things really start to fall apart.
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“Alma has a cyst but it’s benign,” says the brother who calls intermittently to announce the latest in his life of close calls and near misses. Second in line for the job; his next-door neighbor’s house burgled; an inch higher, and the impact would have paralyzed him. He is all sprains and no broken bones. What would he do, Nell wonders, if something of note actually happened to him? He seems so satisfied with mere proximity….
Destruction begins repair, sets it in motion.
What sets this book in motion, what gives each story its sense of urgency in addition to Spence’s probing lyricism is the fragility of her characters: Everyone in these stories is in desperate need of repair, of attention. But, alas, most are overlooked in both areas. They are inconsequential, if not invisible, to those around them. Thus, their longings grow, silently and secretly, into addictions, into obsessions.
There is the fat woman in “Meals and Between Meals” whose love for her skinny, incarcerated boyfriend gains strength with each pound she loses. There is the lonely white American in “Prodigy,” a failure of a man, who becomes so fascinated with a 10-year-old Korean violinist he sees on TV that he signs up for a class in music appreciation. There is the 30-something woman in “She Waits” who puts everything on pause to see if the pieces of her relationship with her 20-something boyfriend will fit together again now that he has returned from rehab.
And there is Claire, the young divorcee in “The Water Man,” who, upon escaping from an abusive relationship, goes to live with her overprotective, widowed grandmother only to find herself being taken in by the smooth-talking charm of a water-purification system salesman. It is the grandmother who ushers readers through the prelude to Claire’s impending heartbreak:
I believe they drink to excess when they are out so late, because they come back on the tail end of a fight, whisper-shouting in the dark. There’s a struggle, and I listen hard for the sounds to turn loving, so I know she’s not being hurt. I don’t yet believe she is, but it’s a dangerous dance that goes on down there in my living room….
I don’t want this for her, to think that this is just part and parcel of being somebody’s girl. Not when I think of the bitterness I swallowed for the privilege of being a wife.
What is most refreshing about Spence’s work is the way in which she deliberately juxtaposes the characters in each story so that all the experiences and emotions she writes about are invariably seen from different points of view, regardless of who the narrator is. Ironically, the one story that lacks this well-rounded perspective is the title story, which was chosen by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1997. It charts what appears to be the collective reaction of the residents of a small town when three women a mother, her teenage daughter, and the daughter’s friend mysteriously disappear. But, in fact, it is merely the recollections of one person whose relationship to the women and the incident is never stated or even implied. It is a tight, finely executed story. But Spence is a writer who clearly enters her work through the voices of her narrators, so this story stands out as being entirely different in technique. Unlike the narrators in Spence’s other stories, this one is neither speaking for herself nor is she an objective outsider, far removed from the tale being told. This narrator includes and implicates herself in everything she describes by using “we,” not “they”:
We admire these hunters who have volunteered to don their orange caps and peer through binoculars, their dogs fanning out ahead and weaving through trees, loyal noses snuffling the ground. We admire the highway patrolmen in their thin summer khakis, poised in the roadside gravel, dogged but polite at the roadblocks, checking licenses. The churchwomen bring pies and fried chicken and cold cans of soda to everyone tired and hungry from searching, and we admire them too.
All of us admirable, the way we rally together. We say “we.” We say “our community,” “our women,” basking in the evidence of so many heroes lured out by tragedy….Surely this abundance of goodwill, mercy, and blatant, selfless volunteerism will prevail over the darker elements that abide here.
While most of the stories in Missing Women and Others are well-crafted and even in tone, there are one or two that do not rise up to meet the high standards readers begin to expect from Spence. For example, in “Fight or Flight” about two women who, concerned with their day-to-day personal safety, attempt to sniff out potential rapists the characters are too vague. The reader does not have much of a chance to get to know them their histories, their motivations and thus is not able to empathize with them.
These critiques seem almost nit-picky when weighed against the fact that June Spence has written a wonderful book, well worth reading and remembering.