TW: domestic violence
Two months into the new year, and I’m on my second short story collection. As with all short story collections, this one is somewhat uneven – but when it works, it really works.
The back cover copy refers to how history ‘haunts us’ in this book, and that hits the nail on the head. These character-driven stories explore racial injustice, sexism, the inescapability of history, and how to reconcile all of these in contemporary America, through the lenses of mostly Black, female protagonists.
Grief is everywhere we turn, and yet Evans’s meticulously controlled and precise writing prevents the narrative from ever feeling bogged-down or emotionally congested. There is the generational trauma of a wrongful conviction of a great-grandfather a century before (Alcatraz), a woman at a wedding who ends up on a road trip with the bride in the direction of the house where her sister was shot by her husband (Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain), a drug mule who boards an interstate bus alone and leaves with a toddler, raising him until it’s no longer tenable (Anything Could Disappear).
‘For a week before the wedding, her sister had been terrified of rain, and Rena had lied about the weather report to comfort her, and the weather had turned out to be beautiful, and her sister turned out to be beautiful, and Connor turned out to be the man who, a year later, suspected Elizabeth of cheating because he’d seen a repairman leave the house and she’d forgotten to tell him anyone was coming that day, and so he put a bullet through her head.’
The writing coolly sweeps you along and then punches you in the gut.
The titular novella, The Office of Historical Corrections, is built on a brilliant premise: a government funded project, the Institute for Public History: a ‘solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it.’ Cassie’s job is to correct the public record – souvenirs with the dates wrong, an off-colour poster about Juneteenth in a cake shop. And it’s all the menial bureaucratic work of a lowly government employee until she’s embroiled in the case of a historical lynching in a small Wisconsin town and a colleague who has gone to set the record straight, igniting the ire of local far-right racists.
‘White people love their history right up until it’s true.’
The premise is superb, as I said, but the rhythm felt off in this one: the short stories packed a bigger punch in their economical word count than a novella that takes up about a third of the book’s page count. It felt simultaneously over-long and under-explored, and even though it was a deft conclusion to the themes in the short stories that preceded it, I didn’t feel it was strong enough to be the axis of the book. Nevertheless, there are some really powerful, incisive stories in here, by an assured and refreshing voice.