She Receives The Night
By Robert Earle
Vine Leaves Press, May 2017
268 Pages, $14.90
Reviewed by Aditya Desai
Robert Earle’s short fiction collection She Recieves the Night features a cast of female protagonists, whose personal lives collide with the larger forces that push them into the fringes, into the dark. Perhaps tellingly, the book doesn’t have a story named after its title; but rather exists as a collective meditation on how from those dark fringes, those women wrestle power back.
There’s an obvious flag when a male writer sets out on such a project. But Earle, a writer by passion and a diplomat by trade, displays a dedication to craft above all, foregrounding his female characters as humans first. The resulting stories play out in small domestic spaces, which turn into pressure cookers for the burdens from half-a-world away. These are often skeletons left behind in remote closets, sometimes continents and oceans away, sometimes years deep in the past, but still inescapable. The opening story, “Trouble Sleeping,” finds an Australian woman reckoning with the dark past of her El Salvadorian housekeeper over late night phone calls. She’s unable to resolve her comfortable Melbourne life with the horrors of guerilla violence:
If Marta Carrasco were Elizabeth’s sister, a schoolmate, a colleague, or a neighbour, Elizabeth would have tried to explain survivor’s guilt, about which she had read at some point in her studies, or knew intuitively and felt stirring in her own breast…Hearing Marta talk about the completion of the paperwork, the stay in the hotel in San Salvador, the place flight across the Pacific—that all happened, but it was not the end.
Other times, his characters crusade head-first, such as in “Not That, This,” where Julia’s trip to the veterinarian brings her into the orbit of Trish, and turns her day into a crusade to save her and her kitty from the horrors of an abusive man. “Trish sat with the kitten on her lap. She began telling her story, her painfully rising and falling voice intermixed with even more painful quivering, self-accusatory pauses.” It’s in these quotidian spaces — phone calls, waiting rooms, Thanksgiving Dinner, courthouses — that women expecting to find banality instead encounter someone dragging serious baggage as if it was chained to their ankles.
Where the injustice isn’t so physical, the characters find new horizons unexplored in their lives. In “After Apple Picking,” career-focused Angela grows alienated from her small New Mexico town after gender-bias passes her over for a promotion. And in “The Deal,” Diane, assuming the Presidency from her husband, tucks marital and political strife in their separate beds. These stories move through short, terse conversations, and Earle has a playwright’s sense of staging:
“So his own agent leant in.
‘Mr President, the President is going now.’
He looked toward her. Held up a single finger. One more minute?
Diane simply stared. Negative. No.”
In between, Earle offers experimental detours, such as “My Name is Libby,” told through a series of Alcoholics Anonymous stories shared by its narrator. Or “The Frying Pan,” a story told without punctuation: “goes into the cowgirls’ room sits on the toilet and he follows her in and she looks at him leaning back against the door and he says I own my company and am bored out of my mind so I do this come here”
One wishes these detours were more successful, or that there were a fewer stories included, as the collection overall begins repeating similar themes, and for every bit of experimentation, they tend to steer back towards the same epiphantic arc of a woman’s injustice, followed by (sometimes hopeful, sometimes tragic) acceptance of her place in the world.
Some stories attempt to carry the weight of a novel. A pairing, “A Life” and “On Being A Woman,” chronicle the lives of two Bengali-American siblings, one who transitions to a woman, while in “Who Has A Castle and Where Can I Hide?” Na Cheon escapes war in Korea and comes into age in a black sex market across South Asia, her brutal subjugation juxtaposed with tender images:
And now, there was this to know: The sea birds, the sea itself, Captain Musa inviting them into his cabin, the other crew, and an American who was a passenger called Walker with an ugly soft round brown wool hat on a hook on the wall. She donned the hat. It made her tremble.
By sticking to short form however, the power is hindered by being tethered to sex as a sole story motive. Too much placed on too little.
And in that respect, there is much to admire, and frankly, be jealous of. The breadth of the collection shows a workmanlike quality (the in-flap biography mentions Earle has published over 100 stories.) The stories work best in confined spaces and moments, when characters are placed in contradictions, offering equally playful and sinister at thrusting dramatic shifts in plot on an unsuspecting reader. These show a writer constantly pushing for invention and opportunity, new places for female narratives to weave.