BOOK REVIEW: Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson

It’s hard to be a good short story writer, let alone get these stories published. Seldom are publishers interested in a format that doesn’t get carried off to the beach on holiday or translate well onto the pages of the review section of the paper. The publishing world has its eyes firmly on the prize: that of the next big, sensational novel. It’s The Girl on the Train that really gets them going, or even Fifty Shades of Gray. The literary per se, isn’t actually the primary concern for representing agents or editors, it’s translatability. Nowadays, authors that manage to actually achieve recognition as a ‘literary’ voice, or an experimental writer, or a living legend have had to support their literary style with strong and dynamic plotlines and often bring in the more mature elements of their style once they have managed to fully establish themselves.

Bring in Granta, not afraid to take on the new author and not afraid to take on the short story. Granta magazine is one of the most prestigious of literary magazines and manages to survive in the internet age, still bringing out fresh stories and upholding fantastic standards. It’s not just anyone who can dazzle Granta (every story I have sent in has fallen in the declined pile), so it is a great achievement to have a short story collection taken on for publishing, so congratulations to April Ayers Lawson.

Her collection Virgin and Other Stories is a fabulous, small collection. As most authors start off their careers writing short stories a good many of them are tempted to offer them to the market prematurely. Problem is, short stories are  a method of developing style and substance in writing. Offering your short stories up for judgement is often the wrong approach, especially your first ones. I, like others, am guilty of believing that my first few short stories would interest others, that their novel ideas are original. Ha, oh dear, and oh dear to everyone else who jumps into the publishing pool too early, for god sake take it easy and develop at least some semblance of polish before you assume everyone else in the world would be interested in your dystopian visions or your coming of age story.

Lawson has developed a talent for short stories that ammature authors can only dream of. Truth evident in this collection is that subtlety is key. Not every short story needs to be full to the brim of plot turns, of suspense and overwrought emotion. You don’t have to try squeeze everything into 5000 words. The key to the success of Alice Munro and Raymond Carver is their honest, beautiful approach to the normal and the ordinary. Which is just the thing that Lawson has too. These stories – loosely centred around the theme of sex – are clever, melancholic and powerful. They explore some delicate and awkward situations.

The first story, ‘Virgin’, explores the early marriage of a couple that is plagued by sexual problems. The new wife, Sheila, was a virgin before marriage. On the marriage night it becomes evident she is not comfortable with having sex and confides in her husband that she was abused by her Uncle. A confusing struggle to regain a sense of sexuality follows, something that is alien and uncomfortable for her husband to watch. There is a brittleness and vulnerability to both of them and in the environment of the South of the U.S.A they cageyness that surrounds the topic of sex is very evident.

‘The Way You Must Play Always’ is another beautiful story. Gretchen has been forced into learning the piano as a way to straighten her out after getting caught experimenting sexually with her cousin. Under the supervision of Miss Grant she is taught the piano, but young Gretchen is distracted by the presence of Miss Grant’s sick brother who stays in the house. The story is a subtle exploration of young sexuality and of adult grief. Miss Grant is missing someone and her melancholic ways translate into an affecting explosion on the piano. The language in the story is delicate, but vivid and gives the reader a fine sense of the characters’ realities’. It is quiet and unassuming way of writing that brings the imagery to life.

The hall looked as it might have looked at night, dark and blank with a thicker stale-sweet smell. The pounding of the hail had slowed to a light patter. When she opened the door she saw that the bed had been carefully made. The room was empty. It smelled of Lysol.

Each story has some image that sticks with you: The exhausted and unsatisfied husband in Virgin laying his head down despairingly on his desk; the cancer suffering brother drifting around in the background of his sister’s piano lessons; and the image of Trans character Charlene trying on her friends dresses when she is out.

The last image is from the story ‘The Negative Effects of Home Schooling’, and is my favourite story of the collection. The teenage narrator is telling of his Mum’s best friend, Charlene, who has recently passed away. Connor is combative and rude, and his confusion over Charlene being transexual is evidient. He asks inappropriate questions and glared at Charlene when she visited. The story snakes back from the funeral, taking in the fascinations of a teenager, his sexual desire for Ally and his insecurity when facing Charlene. A mixture of the sticky, embarrassing and self-concerned emotions of a teenager is laid bare. He reads his Mum’s diary, tries to seduce Ally and tells lies, but also demonstrates his love when he overly defends his Mum against an animal rights activist armed with a flyer. And it is a lovely story, one with little purpose other than to explore character and offer a glimpse into a young man’s head.

This short collection contains some beautiful stories which seem to fit together in harmony, each bubbling up reflections on youth, of desire and of sadness. The stories can sway you either way, there is humour in some: in the stunted, sexual desires that pulse through the characters, in the awkward flirting and in the everyday mundanity of life. But also the stories can impart some of their melancholy on the reader, especially as most of the characters in one way or another are lost: lost in youth, lost in age, lost in love and lost in lack of it.

So, if you want to know what kind of standard you have got to hit to make it to the display table of Waterstones have a look at Virgin and Other Stories, and after that, good luck.

April Ayers Lawson

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April Ayers Lawson is the recipient of the 2011 George Plimpton Award for Fiction, as well as a 2015 writing fellowship from The Corporation of Yaddo. Her fiction has appeared in Granta Norway, Oxford AmericanViceZYZZYVA, Crazyhorse and Five Chapters, among others. Her first book, Virgin and Other Stories, is published by Granta this month. She has lectured in the Creative Writing Department at Emory University, and is the 2016-2017 Kenan Visiting Writer at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Virgin and Other Stories is her first book.

Virgin and Other Stories was published by published by Granta

You can purchase a copy of Virgin and Other Stories from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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Review by Jessica Gregory

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