I read Antonya Nelson’s short story collection Female Troubles five or so years ago and was immediately enraptured. Part of this had something to do with the title, which I thought incredibly clever. And then there was the fact of her distinct narrative voice. It has a decidedly female tone to it, as well as an edge that is unmistakably Southwestern. It could be argued that her stories sound Southwestern because most are set in that region, but I would suggest looking more closely at the people she chooses to uncover in her stories, and the manner in which she does so before pinning down her style to mere narrative location.
Her collection and novella from 2006, Some Fun, slices through run-of-the-mill domesticity. Nelson exhibits a particular interest in the relationships between parents and their children. Often her stories zero in on the dynamics between a mother and her son. She spends less time on these familial bonds once the children have aged, preferring to focus on the attachments created in the childhoods of her subjects. Happily there is nothing sinister in Nelson’s exploration of these connections. She probes the intricacies of relationships that are merely result from plain old paternal and maternal love.
These relationships, as we quickly discover, are fraught with a smorgasborg of issues, which Nelson expertly draws out. There is abandonment, protection and fear to be wrestled with as well as difficult and shifting dynamics of power within the familial unit. Nelson examines the factors and tensions that sway the balance of authority in a family, whether it be age, mental health or the presence of a person who exists outside of the domestic sphere and threatens to disturb if not destroy it. Nelson, one feels, speaks the stories of the people whom one might run into at the grocery store but whose full lives are never revealed.
Nelson refuses to let her characters off easily. They confront situations that push their beliefs, sense of propriety, and security to the limits. Rarely do they return unaltered. Nelson recognizes and allows for the ugliness in people. She brings these darker facets to light without forcing anyone’s hand or putting them on trial. This is an author who is not particularly gentle with her characters but neither is she forceful. It is easy to keep pace with their turns in mood. Their intentions can always be grasped from one angle, even if their actions are somewhat off the mark.
The love stories that appear in this collection concern the kind of love that isn’t chosen. The relationships that are unwound for the reader depict the depths and weaknesses of familial love. Nelson understands and embraces the fact that the love between parents and their children is both wonderfully exquisite as well as the pits of misery.
The most important thing I learned my first year of college was unpacked for me in a poetry class. It had to do with the desolate realization in adolescence that your parents’ love is incomparable. This is, of course, coupled with the discovery that you desire a different sort of love that they cannot provide and that most people in the world won’t. Meaning, that as much as you might love the world, very little of it will love you back. This concept struck a chord, caused romantic little me to burst into tears and I have been unable to shake the truth of it. Nelson encapsulates this certainty in her characters' relationships. Mothers yearn to forever protect their sons, and daughters are at a loss when they see their fathers slipping from them. These are impossibilities. But what is preserved and exposed by Nelson’s stories is the intrinsic depths of this unchosen love and its undeniable intensity.