One often hears of a certain writer’s gift for rendering poetic prose, spellbinding in its precision and rhythm, but rarely have I picked up a short story collection and found nearly every sentence living up to such claims. Not so with In This Light by Melanie Rae Thon, the recipient of a Whiting Award, two NEA fellowships, and the author of four novels in addition to two story collections, Girls in the Grass (1991) and First, Body (1997). In This Light showcases selections from those previous collections along with several new stories. Throughout the book, Thon uses metaphor, repetition, and salient detail to bring her characters’ lives to their often violent, destructive crescendos.
Consider these lines from “Nobody’s Daughters” in the voice of the protagonist, a teenage runaway:
“I lived in your house half the night, I’m the broken window in your little boy’s bedroom. I’m the flooded tiles in the bathroom where the water flowed and flowed…I’m dark hands slipping through all your pale woman underthings; dirty fingers fondling a strand of pearls, your throat, a white bird carved of stone."
The repetition of the “I am,” the use of second person, and the speaker’s claiming of herself as “broken,” “flooded,” with “dirty fingers,” part of a setting that is not her own, imbue the prose with a rhythmic insistence; this is a character we can’t avoid listening to. Direct address, a favorite device of Thon’s, draws us into situations we might otherwise shirk from, the human beings at the center of her stories often scraping by on the outskirts of society: impoverished, addicted, violated, and displaced. In the hands of a lesser-skilled storyteller, the scenarios in which Thon places her characters could easily lapse into clichéd snapshots of marginalized America, rife as the subject matter is with trailer-park women selling their bodies or abandoning their children for the arms of an unworthy lover. (The white female protagonist of “Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer” gets drunk on a reservation, later hitting and abandoning a Native American man on a desolate country road.) But Thon inhabits her characters deeply, through her language and the rendering of voice. The visions portrayed are unflinching in their gritty detail and delivery; I never once doubted the speakers on the page. Each came to life as a living, breathing individual with fears and hungers so bluntly honest the stories were painful to read at times.
Thon accomplishes her distinctive delivery in a multitude of ways. Description and dialogue are often compressed here; there are no long scenes of extensive dialogue. The sharp image and lively, often surprising, verb reign supreme in her sentences. Consider this passage from “Iona Moon,” in which the title character has picked up a boy named Willy. The two are careening toward an unwanted sexual encounter:
“He said, ‘Where are you going?’ And she said, 'The river.' He told her he needed to get home; it was almost dark. Iona said, 'I know.' He told her he meant it; but his voice was feeble, and she kept plowing through the haze of dusk, faster and faster, till the whole seat was shaking.”
The terse, brief exchange, the revelation of the boy’s need to go home in a “feeble voice” juxtaposed with the girl “plowing” ahead combine unique action and detail to create an unsettling, foreboding mood, coupled with the onset of nightfall. For what else do we need to know beyond the way the boy asserts, weakly, his need to get home, and Iona’s refusal, not only opposing but charging recklessly toward her desire, “faster and faster, until the whole seat was shaking”? The result is a style that evokes tension and meaning many layers deep but does not feel overloaded or reaching. Out of Thon’s subtlety arises the dark tone of her fiction.
Perhaps the most haunting story in the collection is “Punishment,” the story of Lize, a slave who is forced to nurse her master’s infant son in the pre-Civil War American South. Thon captures the horrors of the period vividly through the eyes of the elderly narrator, the master’s daughter, who was a young girl at the time of the incidents that ultimately cost her brother his life. When a white servant accuses a slave of accosting her, the narrator’s father orders the black man’s ears cut off. In one of the most compelling, unforgettable passages in the book, the narrator recalls,
“I saw Abe chopping cotton in the fields, skin so black it blazed blue at noonday. For weeks he wore a bandage around his head, and I pretended his ears were growing back, that when he unwrapped himself in the evening, he could feel the first nubs, and soon, very soon, the whorls would bloom to full size, firm in the cures and fleshy at the lobes, perfect ears. I touched them in my sleep, peeled away the crust of dried blood, pressed my lips to the fine lines of his scars until they disappeared.”
When Lize’s own infant son dies as a result of her nursing the master’s instead, the impact is no less tragic than it is inevitable; but even so, the world Thon depicts is not without redemption. For among what the author does best in her nuanced portrayals is seize upon her characters’ flaws, bear down, and ride them to their bluntest, most damaging ends. Thus, the narrator’s slave-owning father “los[es] his legs and his mind” in the war to come, becoming a shell of a man: “No, he mourned only for his own legs, kept asking where they were, as if I might know, as if I had hidden them” (39). Yet no matter how cruel the character or crime, Thon retains a deft balance in her storytelling, her descriptions as honest in their tenderness as in their rendering of humanity’s brutality. While the stories in In This Light pack a powerful punch in their ability to leave the reader unhinged and stunned, they are equally unapologetic in their evocation of grace and compassion.
Plot is subtlety wrought here, never overt, and the reader who is seeking a more conventional narrative structure with neat subplots won’t find that in Thon’s fiction. In some of her stories, such as “Nobody’s Daughters” and “Tu B’Shvat: for the drowned and the saved,” imagery seems to trump plot, and the author’s penchant for telling one character’s story through the eyes of another, such as in “Confession for Raymond Good Bird,” requires close reading to keep track of whose story is being told. But in the end, the threads weave together, and the demands placed on the reader are rewarded with nuanced, often mystical, portrayals of human beings in settings ranging from the rural American West and Boston to the antebellum South and the Holocaust. Of Melanie Rae Thon, author and playwright Caryl Phillips writes, “She has created outstanding work over more than a quarter of a century, and it deserves to be recognized by a wider audience.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction and essays have been published in the Paris Review, the Southern Review, and Green Mountains Review, among many others. She recently completed a novel. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.
In This Light
Melanie Rae Thon
Graywolf Press, 2011
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-55597-585-2