In this month’s ReadyMade, they profile The School of Life, where bibliotherapists in London assign reading to clients based on their issues or life goals. My recent bouts of loneliness would probably have led their staff to assign Vanishing and Other Stories (P.S.) by Deborah Willis. In an odd bit of synchronicity, I received a review copy in the mail.
These fourteen short stories share a common theme- people leave, go missing, die. Then Willis deftly shows us what happens in the aftermath. The quiet, careful pace makes this collection a page-turner. Secrets are revealed just when you think the stories are over, and some of the revelations are so surprising you go back to read the story in full to see how she put it together. Willis, a Canadian, claims her biggest influence are the stories of Alice Munro and you can see in this collection the same careful attention to taking apart the narratives and rearranging time, scrapping a bit of the past onto the present until the big picture becomes clear.
In my favorite story in the collection, “This Other Us,” three roommates- a couple and a female friend- share a two bedroom apartment. When Karen, the exotic and dramatic half of the couple, leaves suddenly, her boyfriend and roommate are left to fill in the gap left behind. What starts as a game of dress-up with her left-behind clothes becomes increasingly complicated as they navigate Karen’s vacant spot in their lives. As in so many of these stories, Willis doesn’t limit the idea of love to romantic relationships and shows that the impact of a departure of a friend, sibling, or parent can redefine heartbreak.
Which is not to say that these stories are all entirely tragedies. They don’t choose the easy way out and wrap up with uplifting endings to send you out into the world, to be sure. They work out the way that life works out, without easy answers, and with their characters making the best of what’s been left behind.For me personally, as an assignment, reading these stories and sitting comfortably with their characters loneliness was a valuable experience- regardless of the holes left by those who are gone, life as they say, goes on.
Vanishing was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. If these stories are any indication of her talents, I suspect we will be seeing more of Willis’ carefully crafted fiction in the future.