BOOK REVIEW: The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons

With her debut short story collection, Amy Bonnaffons gives us modern day magical realism complete with inquisitive, hopeful 21stcentury female characters in The Wrong Heaven. Compared to the literary powerhouses George Saunders (on more than one occasion) and Alissa Nutting, Bonnaffons’ writing is funny, sometimes goofy and incredibly inventive. These short stories mostly address young women as they explore their relationship to themselves, men and female desire, in whichever form that may take. However, they are also extremely cathartic, connecting female readers and showing that these frank and sometimes crude observations about life, are felt by many assumed to be in the prime of their lives.

The collection starts with the title story, The Wrong Heaven, in which a young teacher purchases talking plastic statues of Mary and Jesus. For me – although it is still excellent within its own right – this story is actually the weakest in the collection, however that label is a hard one to earn among these tales. We are however, introduced to Bonnaffons’ style and themes: weird, wonderful, women stumbling through various situations. Religion features heavily throughout too, though not in the traditional and somewhat negative sense. Instead, there is a cursory glance towards the power of belief, whether that be in God or something that differs from the typical image of a deity. For in the end, faith in all forms is what drives these women to continue on their journeys, however ‘whacky’ they may be.

The stand out story is most certainly ‘Horse’, unarguably the weirdest of the bunch…again, hard to achieve in this debut collection. In Horse, we are taken through the lives of two women as they attempt to permanently change their bodies – one by getting pregnant, the other (the narrator) by turning herself into a horse. Of course, the discomfort that many feel towards growing older and confronting motherhood is addressed head on here, but that isn’t the only thing at play. By choosing to sacrifice her female form for the relatively mysterious body of a horse, leaving her life, friends and family behind and transferring her existence over to a remote island farm, alongside other women-turned-horses, an intelligent array of questions is introduced. The narrative is intercepted with excerpts from a rather witty information leaflet about the procedure, in the style of a question and answer form. Accepted female rage; a desire to be without constraints, things or even feelings; the dark appeal that an empty head, void of the many memories (it is assumed) and abilities of humans, has, is in fact extremely tantalising in this instance. The women help each other through their respective bodily and emotional changes, until the differences between them can be ignored no more. A comment on the societal rift that still exists between traditionalist familial women and those who are choosing not to have children? Perhaps. If anything though, it highlights the lengths that some women would go to, to feel truly free and able to be themselves. I found myself wondering how many of us would be tempted, had that procedure been real and viable; the true root of the intriguing story.

This sense of ‘what would I do’ does carry throughout many of the stories, no matter how bizarre and unrealistic the situation is. The women, though all possessing different narrative voices and lifestyles, could just as easily be chopped and changed and placed in each other’s worlds. Through their voices and their conflicted dilemmas, combined with their desire to seek out lives mysteries, they are united into one strong female vision. Each are exploring what would make them a more complete version of themselves, and what they would have to give up to get there.

Despite the weirdness of the previous two stories mentioned, there are some out of the collection of ten which are inherently ‘normal’; that is, they possess no talking religious icons or horse DNA injections. They are heavy with the ordinary, even when they are sometimes anything but mundane. In The Cleas, a babysitter unravels the complicated relationship between two families, wrongly assuming that her own relationship and desire for one of the fathers, is an important factor in the chaos. She dissects the domestic lives and parenting styles of the two families, seemingly joined only by their daughters’ friendship. This story in particular is full of pregnant pauses and many ‘unsaids’, interjected with differing sexual scenes and a sprinkling of the taboo on show. Likewise, ‘Doris and Kate’ is a relatively ordinary situation; two older women (the only one of the short that explicitly has older female main characters, although they could arguably be of any age) slowly reveal their differences to the reader, the things that they are too scared for one other to find out after many years of friendship. There is a sense of teenage gossip in this one, raising the question of whether female relationships ever do really evolve and mature with time. Secrets about drugs, infidelity, illness, and even the strength of each character are brought to light. It ends with a moving and angry haircutting scene, the deception pouring out with each forceful snip.

Yet sometimes they are glorious, delicate mixtures of the two – our own, recognisable world, but slightly askew. Little Sister – a story that among the extraordinary and strong female voices, is in danger of being forgotten – is an example of this. Despite the ‘forgetability’ factor, it is one of my favourites, and the more I analyse and delve into the characters and that beautiful, nightmarish image of the dead ‘little sister’, alive in all ways but one, I love it more and more. It explores how the loss of a child and subsequent breakdown of a marriage can impact the often forgotten piece: the only daughter who is still present. The daughter lives with her long-dead sister, sometimes outright and aggressively, sometimes tucked away and not mentioned for years. Yet the feeling of another being, another presence that for a short amount of time was so close to her own, stays with her throughout her life. And perversely, the little sister grows with her too – the timeline becomes so blurred, the initial trauma so muddled, that she soon reaches the narrators own age and progresses through things like puberty and old age alongside her. The story also possess my favourite few sentences in the entire collection, coming at the end of the piece when the narrator imagines that she has passed away and has instructed her children to uncover her little sister:

“This was our mother’s secret: how beautiful, how strange. They’ll lift her from the floorboards and cradle her white head in their laps and say, Look at what she protected. Look at what she lost.”

Debut short story collections can often feel unfinished or not quite polished enough, yet The Wrong Heaven proves all those haggard stereotypes wrong. In fact, The Wrong Heaven is a debut only in name. The stories within it feel entirely complete and the collection is expertly woven together, each tale, each scene, and each character earning its rightful place on the page. As readers and writers, we occasionally come across pieces of prose that make us think ‘I wish I had written that’. For me, The Wrong Heaven is one such piece of work. I’d even settle for having penned something as excellent as just one of the stories. It is a refreshing, intelligent example of writing, which almost feels like it is on the cusp of a whole new genre all on its own.

Masterful, and I look forward to seeing much more of Bonnaffons’ future work.

The Wrong Heaven is published by Orion Books and is available here.

Amy Bonnaffons

Amy Bonnaffons is a founding editor of 7×7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, GA, where she is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and a M.F.A. from New York University.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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