Women’s stories, in the best way: Kirstin Allio’s new collection
There are many ways to write about women, but the argument could be made that almost any novel or story written by a woman is somehow about women, as if that theme automatically applies by dint of the fiction’s connection to its writer. But that would be a simplistic reading and would likely frustrate many writers — unless, like Kirstin Allio, they really are writing about and embracing the theme wholeheartedly.
It’s been 11 years since Allio’s debut novel, “Garner,” came out from Coffee House Press and was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize for first fiction. Allio returns from her long book-publishing-absence with “Clothed, Female Figure,” a collection of short stories that are about both individual women — their woes, fears and small triumphs — and womanhood as a concept, a state of being. While there is never a clear spoon-fed message of feminism, the validating undercurrent of these women’s experiences is more like an undertow, strong and carrying.
Connections between women are also subtly explored in the almost fully female cast. In the title story, a once-Soviet psychologist has become a nanny after immigrating to the United States.
The liminal space between motherhood and womanhood, where the two intertwine and diverge, is strong.
— Ilana Masad on Allio’s collection
Natasha’s English is impeccable, and she is highly educated; it is never made quite clear why she never tried to practice her former profession in this country. What is understood by the end of the story, however, is why she turned to nannying, specifically. Between those start and finish points of her personal history, however, the story meanders into her relationship with a former charge, Leah, who is now in college, studying art, and has begun writing letters to the nanny she remembers from over a decade prior. Leah tells Natasha that she is a nanny herself, by accident almost, as she’s agreed to go with her revered sculptor-professor to Italy and take care of her children.
In Leah’s letters, which have a voice distinct from Natasha’s own, Leah describes a sculpture she wanted to make, “a life-sized sculpture of a woman. The whole point was she would be clothed, suggesting the opposite of clothing. Like naked bodies are less sexy, actually, than bodies in bathing suits. Uh-huh, that’s my college for you.” Leah adds, “Then I had an idea that the body had to be yours… You looked as if you immigrated every day, to Chelsea.” Natasha doesn’t share whether she finds this insulting or upsetting — she is only giddy to hear from Leah and unable to write back, fearing that contact from her would ruin the fairy-tale version of herself that Leah has built up in her memory. Natasha, never a mother to her charges but very clearly a caretaker, is considered by Leah and her mother as the conscience they lacked. The liminal space between motherhood and womanhood, where the two intertwine and diverge, is strong in this and several of the other stories.
Indeed, mothers are almost ubiquitous to these stories, as is the relationship between women and class. In “The Other Woman,” the narrator’s mother was part of a university’s cleaning staff, but pretended to be a post-doc student and became the protégé of a famous sociologist. In “Ark,” Caryn is snowed in with five children — four her own and one nephew — and needs to entertain them while also figuring out her relationship with her nephew, who is quiet and somewhat mysterious to her. In “Quetzal,” a mother and daughter seem to be linked forever by their desires and loves and how they end up losing and regaining them.
But simplifying Allio’s stories to these one-line descriptions doesn’t do justice to her prose. There is something reminiscent of Alice Munro in Allio’s stories, a similarity in how both writers can fit novel-like stories into fewer than 30 pages, flashing between years past and present without a hiccup. There is also a similar economy of language that nevertheless provides a world of imagery. Here, she describes revealing physicality: “Between Phil’s thick eyebrows and mat of dark hair was a sweatband of tight forehead,” and “Sara was glad she was so thin, as if it signified strength of character.” Her landscapes contain insights into the story’s emotions and also a commentary on the U.S.: “Trackside backyards bearing a family’s series of big purchases — aboveground pool, trampoline, boat on blocks, pre-fab tool shed with a single barren window box. A series of disappointments.” And read her original, simple, entirely evocative descriptions of weather and time: “The air was watery, snow by afternoon”; “At six o’clock the morning is a light sleeve”; “Outside, the air is still as if it’s been trapped under a hat for days.”
While some of the stories in “Clothed, Female Figure” end with such an openness that they almost don’t feel finished, and may be dissatisfactory or alarmingly sudden for some, there is still a deliberateness about them that makes it clear that Allio knows what she’s doing. The way she works her way into and out of her plots is skillful, but it’s the writing itself, so deceptively easy at times, that is truly breathtaking.
Masad is an Israeli American writer living in New York.
Dzanc Books: 280 pp., $16.95 paper
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