Review: Jennifer Colville’s ‘Elegies …’ evoke a vibrant sense of life

Iowa City Book Festival Presents: Jennifer Colville, Francesca Abbate and Jennifer Pritchard

RADinc. — Saturday, Oct. 14 at 10 a.m.

Iowa City Book Festival Presents: Free Generative Writing Workshop — Shadow Box Writing with Jennifer Colville

Iowa City Public Library (Meeting Room D) — Saturday, Oct. 14 at 1 p.m.

‘Elegies for Uncanny Girls’ was released Jan. 20, 2017 by Indiana University Press.

Although one should never judge books by covers alone, the one gracing Jenny Colville’s Elegies for Uncanny Girls conveys an apt sense of the book’s contents. This befits Colville’s work as the editor of PromptPress, which invites authors to create verbal reflections inspired by images. Here, the uneven titular font stands poised above stark red lips, her name spelled out in neon green below.

The stories are worthy of this instant visual introduction: The stories, like the lips, provide prologues to little moments of unease that we conveniently neglect. Take this moment from the beginning of “Details”: “He’s supposed to seduce me, and I’m supposed to be seducible, but it’s a plan I don’t like to admit.” This leads to a scene where “I also forget to be happy that he’s kissing me.” Colville’s stories insist on detailing experiences such as this, times when we know better but ignore this knowledge at all costs.

Each girl — sometimes woman — in each story participates in the uncanny in a distinct way. The term “uncanny,” like the German unheimlich, describes the tension between the familiar and the strange. The strange manifests in specific ways throughout the stories; Colville proves to be particularly adept at stories that show oddities as normalized.

“Dora” provides a nice example, when the narrator says, “The first time Dora came back I didn’t recognize her. She appeared at our party as a ripple in the wallpaper, as an outline of a young woman whose cloak matched the damask — her hair, a mess as usual, was now a hovering arrangement of funeral flowers.” Here, the story foreshadows the repetition of a return against a moment of misrecognition, where Dora is too much a part of the house itself. Although the story is short, it unfolds as a terrifying awareness of what the ghostly might be.

Jennifer Colville has a reading and a workshop scheduled during the Iowa City Book Festival. — photo by Sarah Nebel

The moments that bend toward magical realism (“Other Mothers” and “Jill, or the Big Little Lady”) literalize the uncanniness in a way that shapes the strange emotional terrains Colville depicts in other stories in the collection. The juxtaposition of literalized strangeness and emotional realism opens readers to new ways of appreciating (instead of fearing) the weird dimensions of everyday life

Reading the stories in the way that the title invites — as elegies — allows readers to understand the lives we find as already written and complete. This is at odds with the experience of reading the stories, which are nettled with a sense of life. “Audra” begins with this sense of life: “The first time Molly saw her, Audra was throwing herself backward, hooking her knees into the high beam of the jungle gym and flipping.”

True to the notion of the uncanny, this sense of life permeates even moments that reek of death. In “Caroline,” for example, the narrator writes: “She pretended I wasn’t there so I pretended she was dead and that I was preparing her for a funeral,” invoking a sense of death that the living create around themselves as a shield against pain.

The characters are unreal the way that our friends, or selves, sometimes are — and disturb readers in this way, for good reason. This sense of disturbance continues to haunt, eliciting our secret half-remembered moments of shame that arrive as our innocence becomes lost.

In “Costume,” Colville conjures one such moment when a child’s creativity becomes too clumsy to allow adults to suspend disbelief, but which ends with a mother attempting to remake her child’s magic. Adult readers, especially parents, can read both sides of this moment simultaneously and wince at the revelation of this kind of truth — the kind that reminds us that there are secrets that we never quite outgrow.

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