NOTE: Lorrie Moore is one of my favourite contemporary writers, and has been since her debut collection, Self Help. So this is not an unbiased review, rather, it’s a reminder of why she should be on your reading list. At the end are two links, the first to a review of her Collected Short Stories, the second to an interview, both conducted for The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday while I was on staff.
By Lorrie Moore
Faber & Faber, £14.99 hardback, £12.99 ebook
The worst thing I can say about Lorrie Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark, is that it’s too short, and that not all the pieces are new to print, having been included in her Collected Stories, and/or appeared in the New Yorker. The best thing I can say about the book is, to borrow the author’s beloved punctuation mark is: Hey! It’s by Lorrie Moore!
And that, my friends, is cause for rejoicing.
Rooted very specifically in the author’s own time and place – middle age and the post 9/11 American Midwest – these are stories about the impossibility of love and the perversity of attraction, set in an atmosphere of pervasive dread. Most of her characters exist under a canopy of resignation, and the pleasures they dare to hope for are meager. Yet they are no less heroic for facing up to life’s disappointments and carrying on with humour, in spite of the dreadful weight of their limitations.
There’s an ache at the heart of this collection, in which one woman, so desperate for human contact, books herself in at a hair salon just to have her hair washed, and at airports, opts for the pat-downs instead of the scanning machines. It’s a book of goodbyes, rather than hellos. Lovers, spouses and children drift off, wander away. Sometimes it’s worse. In Paper Losses a husband posts divorce papers to the wife he still lives with.
The Juniper Tree stands out on this reading as a truly intriguing tale, not least because the titular tree is full of symbolic resonance. Most obviously, juniper berries are used to flavour gin, the libation of preference throughout the story. It also stands for succor and chastity, for love attraction, luck and protection. And I discovered that St Juniper is the patron saint of comedy, which makes beautiful sense when one considers the story’s climax.
It concerns a college town so small and incestuous that any single man inevitably does the rounds, dating each of its divorced, middle aged women in turn, and sometimes simultaneously. The narrator is dating a man who was briefly involved with her friend, Robin, who dies early in the story. Accompanied by two very damaged friends she visits Robin’s house after dark, where they have an audience with the dead woman’s ghost. Anyone who’s ever been visited by a lost friend or relation in their dreams will find this encounter familiar and perhaps normal. I know I did. By my third reading I wondered if this was actually something the narrator dreamed.
She describes the last night she spent with Robin when she was healthy. Over dinner they wind up discussing a third woman, whom their mutual paramour is also dating. As they say goodbye, Robin smashes a pie in her own face just because she’d always wanted to. What’s so brilliant about Moore – for me a potent symbol of her unique gift – is the quiet way in which this becomes so much more unsettling and peculiar than the arrival of a ghost.
Moore is an author to savour and reread. She is funny and wise deserves pride of place on every bookshelf.