Moon City Press, 2017
238 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
Kim Magowan’s short story collection, Undoing, winner of the 2017 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and published earlier this year, examines precisely what it promises, the undoing of relationships, of love, of marriages, and of expectations. The stories are active, their characters and their relationships moving through changes; and though they are not quite finished, they are not undone – just yet. Nothing is for sure in Magowan’s stories, there are no destined outcomes, no sure-fire endings, no matter how much Magowan makes us crave answers, the stories always end with questions. Will she stay? Will they get back together? Will this affair matter in the long run? Is any of it worth it?
While the cast of characters spans ages and sexes and their settings vary throughout the 29 short stories, their experiences echo one another. Undoing is rife with infidelity, in particular with cheating middle-aged men, but many stories focus on the women who become embroiled in affairs, whether that be the lover or the spurned spouse.
In “Brining” Miriam, one of many characters grappling with their partner’s infidelity, shouts at her husband to leave their home upon her discovery of his continued affair. This is of course an anticipated and obvious reaction, set up by Miriam’s comforting and homey (yet vaguely threatening) precision-cutting of mushrooms. But then, in a turn from the obvious, Miriam does a curious thing; she softens in the next instant and mutters to her husband — “Correction: what I really meant was, I want you to fucking stay.” Here, Magowan revives the story with an unexpected turn.
Magowan seems to be conscious of the ways in which she manipulates a reader’s anticipation. “Version” focuses on Molly, who is the secret product of a love affair that turned sour when her father cheated on her mother and her mother fled. The story continues normally until the point when David, Molly’s father, finally has a confrontation with Molly’s mother and realizes the precocious child who is staring at him is his. This moment could have become predictably saccharine, but instead David turns and flees the room, after which Magowan offers several alternative endings, with the actual ending never being revealed. Not only does this story once again flip the reader’s assumptions of how things will unfold, but the structure makes the story one of the most interesting in the collection. And, like nearly all other stories in the collection, the story never really feels complete or tied up with a bow, because messy things like love and life rarely ever are.
There are instances of the anticipated and expected, but it would be hard not to find that in 29 stories built mostly on adultery and illicit affairs. We see a young babysitter get manipulated into a sexual affair by her charge’s father, we meet a queer woman dating a “LUG” (lesbian until graduation), there are plenty of older men chasing younger women, girlfriends or new wives who pull fathers away from their families, and variations on promises of “it’ll never happen again,” but Magowan crafts these flirtations with boilerplate into something unique. She is able to do this with gorgeous prose, snappy pacing, and dynamic, three dimensional characters that make even familiar situations feel new and engaging.
After reading Magowan’s Undoing you’ll find yourself a little wiser about the ways in which the human heart can break.