Yannick Murphy, In a Bear’s Eye (Dzanc Books, 2008)
Yannick Murphy has said that great prose should give readers a sense that they are going somewhere and that it could be somewhere dangerous. In this, her second collection, Murphy delivers a host of different and dangerous places in stories told in disparate voices, each with distinct power, each telling a compelling tale.
The title story, recently included in the 2007 O’Henry Prize Stories anthology and by far the strongest in the collection, is told in the voice of a young widow rushing to save her young son from a bear. Through skilled use of flashback and digression, we are given a lyrical vision of the difficulty both she and her young son have in carrying on after the suicide of the husband and father.
The boy was not doing well in school. He liked to read during class. Beneath the desk he would hold an open book. A book about beavers or silk moths or spiders. The teacher sent him home with notes for his mother. The notes said the boy must pay attention…Her boy never said he was sad that his father, her husband, had died. But she knew he was sad. Her husband was like a book that could talk. At the dinner table he would tell their boy about science and math. He talked about zero. “Zero scared the ancients,” her husband said. “No one wanted to believe that there could be nothing.”
Certain of these stories are more successful than others: “Pan, pan, pan” is a quirky dark vision of the effect of a plane crash on a family vacation; “Whitely on the Tips,” a scathing yet subtle critique of suburbia; “The Lost Breed” begins as an adventure story gone wrong and ends with two women feeding their babies and discussing a Day of the Dead potluck dinner; and “The Woman in the Leopard-Spotted Robe” is a tragic portrait of a failed mother and a failed life. In each of these stories, Murphy examines grief and the acceptance of loss in language that is both simple and exact. Her sharp sense of composition lends weight to these stories and provides a consistent pace that leaves an indelible imprint.
Other stories in the collection are less successful, relying on voices that fall somewhat flat when held up against the collection as a whole. “The Beauty in Bulls,” reads more like an exercise in dialogue exploring well-worn themes; and “Lester” features a narrator in an internal angry monologue saying not much of anything of interest. What makes these stories less compelling than the others in this collection is a combination of voice, tone, and language that reads as if Murphy is trying to be shocking or different instead of simply telling the best story she can in the best way she knows how.
That said, the gems in this collection are indeed precious and when Murphy is writing well, she is better than most. Her ability to render voice, place, and to reach a truly lyrical tone in her language lead to a collection of prose that takes the reader somewhere dangerous and worthwhile.
ContributorApril Yvonne Garrett
April Yvonne Garrett is the founder and president of Civic Frame, a nonprofit organization that uses art and intellectual work to encourage civic participation, media literacy, and critical thinking