Make Believe Animals
-Book Reviewed by Roger Market–
Make Believe Animals is the forthcoming short story collection by Amanda Gilleland. The book’s characters are performers at heart. From literal actors, artists, and psychics to everyday Joes, Gilleland depicts people going through the motions of life. Sometimes these people exhibit genuine personality, but more often than not, there is a facade. They are pretending to be someone or something they’re not: the girl next door, a happy couple, artistic…young.
The first story, “Four Quarts,” is somewhat soft and simple but by no means unremarkable. It eases the reader into Gilleland’s world before things get more lyrical, more imaginative, perhaps more literary. Depending on the reader’s tolerance for characters that take and talk about drugs, the story’s content can test one’s patience, but the author’s sensitivity for subtle human elements makes the prose shine. Gilleland brilliantly captures the grit of Baltimore’s less desirable neighborhoods and the strange experience of visiting a psychic to inquire about life’s most mundane and unimportant aspects. Themes of light vs. dark in a tormented world are vividly contrasted. Yes, real life is indeed present in the pages of “Four Quarts,” even for readers who can’t relate to the drug world.
“Betty Blue” and “Scenic Route,” the second and third stories, take a different turn that is both creative and thought provoking. An overt and humorous metaphor for the human resistance to change, the former story depicts our titular hero, Betty, angrily and perpetually stomping on tomatoes. Despite her best efforts, strawberries, green beans and peppers can’t satisfy this character’s destructive needs. Gillelend wonderfully evokes the gush of juice and the release of pent up frustration that only exploding fruit can provide.
“Scenic Route” steers us in a new direction. Humming with human emotion, and driven by lyrical verse, the story characterizes the beauty of nature in a way that may shock the most modest of readers. The story is well worth the read for those who aren’t afraid to get a little…well, sticky.
Although “Make Believe Animal” is the book’s centerpiece, and it certainly does epitomize the overall theme of people as actors, “Just a Trim” stands out. Who knew that a story about a haircut could be a bit of a tearjerker? “How do I look?” the husband asks when it’s over. The wife’s response is simple but effective, demanding an emotional reaction on the part of the reader. “Just a Trim’s” well placed setups are heartbreaking to watch unfold, and those last few lines may very well be the strongest parts of the whole book. If not for the preceding prose, they would seem mundane, too “everyday” to carry real weight, but with Gilleland’s careful pacing, the words reach new heights.
The ensuing stories, “Lobster Queen” and “Signal Hill,” allow for a well-deserved emotional breather. Then, after a short trip to the land of schmaltz (albeit lovely schmaltz) with “A Brief History of Love (Part One),” the reader arrives at “The Girl, The Princess, Trapeze Safety Awareness.” This final story is one of several that play with new structures, and it is here that the theme of life acting climaxes.
Make Believe Animals reveals a solid understanding of structure. Gilleland is always building toward something. Even when the effect is subtle, the action or detail has meaning for the reader. This book’s characters are role players in the stories of their lives, performers advancing from one act to the next. We witness them shining and fading away on stage, collectively waiting for the final curtain call. This is the only stage direction that can save them from the embarrassing encounters that bridge life’s common comedies and tragedies, providing adequate closure. Luckily for the reader, Make Believe Animal’s ending never feels achingly far off; the book doesn’t drag. That’s the beauty of a well-conceived short story collection. This one, in particular, will be available directly from the author in early May.
Post Image Courtesy of Amanda Gilleland