Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas

This prize-winning debut of twelve stories explores a femininity that is magical, raw, and grotesque. Aghast at the failings of their bodies, this cast of misfit women and girls sets out to remedy the misdirection of their lives in bold and reckless ways.

Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps. A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex to reclaim the fragments of a dissolved marriage. Following the advice of a fashion magazine, teenaged girls binge on grapes to dye their skin purple and attract prom dates. And a college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has inadvertently seduced all the boys in their dorm with her exotic hermaphroditic anatomy.

But it isn’t just the characters who are in crisis. In Lungs Full of Noise, personal disasters mirror the dissolution of the natural world. Written in lyrical prose with imagination and humor, Tessa Mellas’s collection is an aviary of feathered stories that are rich, emotive, and imbued with the strength to suspend strange new worlds on delicate wings.

Goodreads description

Sometimes a book comes along in my magic realism challenge which makes me rethink what makes magic realism work so well for me. Pedro Paramo was one such book and this is another. This is magic realism which is pushing the boundary of form, at times distinctly weird and often verging on poetry. Do all the stories work equally well? No, of course not, but then Mellas' writing wouldn't be experimental if it was predictable. 

The subject matter - about being female - is something that I interests me. Mellas' stories cover a number of feminist issues - the menopause, empty nest syndrome, body image, motherhood, the repression of girls' voices, competition for the attention of men - in a way that is at once fantastical and very, very real. 

The best story for me was The White Wings of Moths, which is about a woman trying to cope with the menopause and her relationship with her absent daughter by adopting and caring for caterpillars. Not only is it wonderfully poetic and lyrical, it also has some accurate descriptions of the heat of menopause: Menopause has made sleep a difficult thing, a hidden room in a hidden house in a hidden town... Her body burns and tingles. And there's a quaking inside her limbs. The bones in her spine have turned to ice. Her ovaries too. She feels them heavy and cold like stones nestled against her womb. 

In Dye Job teenage girls turn themselves blue by gorging on fruit in the hope of gaining prom partners.  Their health and friendships are strained as they compete for that all important young man. In Mariposa Girls the girls are aspiring figure skaters, willing to sacrifice everything for perfection in their sport.

Beanstalk is a story which has similarities with the Czech folk story Otesánek about a woman who adopts a baby made out of a tree root, who grows and takes over her life and her world (the tale was adapted into the film Little Otik by Jan Svankmejer). In this story it is implied that the baby the woman gives birth to may have been fathered by a plant rather than her rather boring neighbour. It is about the desire for motherhood, but it also could be considered a story about the power of nature.

Other stories also have an environmental theme. Blue Sky White is a mythic or folkloric account of a world in which one day the sky ceases to be blue. Landscapes in White is a prose poem of a world in which birds fall from the sky: The sky full of feathers, a quarrel of wings. Plumage blooms across our windows, the glass smeared cloudy with milky streaks. The beltway a blur of sparrows. City towers beaten by doves.

As the book progresses the stories tend to lose their conventional story structure and become more experimental, in grammar as well as form. These will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed and was inspired by them, although I will not claim to have understood them all.

The book concludes with the story of a woman who steals the severed arm of her former husband in an effort to reconnect with the life she once had. At once lyrical, shocking and thought-provoking it is typical of the stories in this wonderful collection.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

No comments: