Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mid-American Review reviews Women Up On Blocks

Mid-American Review
Volume XXIX, Number 2
(Reproduced with permission.)

Women Up On Blocks: Stories by Mary Akers. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53, 2009. 160 pages. $14.00, paper.

The publisher’s note to Mary Akers’ debut collection of short stories describes it as an exploration of “the price women pay when they allow the roles of wife, mother, daughter, or lover to define them.” In each of these thirteen stories, we meet characters who are keenly aware of these limiting boundaries, and through Akers’ deft narrative strokes, we are able to experience their frustration, resignation, reconciliation.

For some of these characters, their expected roles have been imposed on them by a society that refuses to recognize and validate difference; the narrator of “Mooncalf,” a young woman afflicted by cerebral palsy who dares to dream of happiness in marriage and motherhood is a powerful illustration of this. Other characters have taken on their roles seemingly voluntarily, like the young wife in “Wild, Wild Horses,” who has chosen to give up on an education and a career in order to raise a family. However these stories suggest that there was no true freedom even at that moment of choice, and that these characters have always been stifled by expectations.

“The Rashomon Tree” is interesting because it highlighted for me the idea that I was part of the external world that was judging these women and attempting to put them into neat slots. The two principle characters in this story seem stereotypical—the ditsy hippy and the fundamentalist Christian—and the interactions they have with each other are headed toward expected antagonism. However, by the story’s conclusion, these two women reveal to themselves and to the reader the impossibility of predicting human behavior; though this life lesson did seem a little facile, the story is nevertheless charming, and is narrated through multiple perspectives that emphasize how easy it is to misinterpret one another. By using varies narrative techniques in this story as well as in others in the collection, Akers succeeds in keeping each story distinct and memorable. Her most striking talent is of creating suspense by piling on mundane details that take on a sense of urgency; in the opening story of the collection, “Medusa Song,” we witness a young mother growing increasingly agitated as she does normal household chores. When she puts the baby in the car and decides to drive down to the river in the rain, we follow along, breathless and worried, afraid of what she is capable of.

While these characters attempt to shuffle off societal expectations or at least come to realize how limiting they are, these stories also reveal that this recognition leaves these characters in a place of discomfort or uncertainty; they have had to confront aspects of themselves and others that they did not expect to find. While the metaphor for this uncomfortable self-awareness is perhaps too blatant in the story “Model Home,” which is set in a house that has mostly mirrors for walls, it succeeds in “Animo, Anima, Animus”—in this story, two women with their individual notions of propriety and sexual freedom gaze on each other with pity and revulsion, revealing to what extent they have misunderstood each other and themselves.

--Sruthi Thekkiam, University of Houston