Book Review

Chris McGinley on
stories by Meagan Lucas
Shotgun Honey, 2023


There’s a fantastic passage in Meagan Lucas’s new collection of stories titled Here in the Dark (Shotgun Honey, 2023). A young boy can’t figure out what’s happened to one of his house cat’s tiny kittens, the runt of the litter, and his mother does her best to explain things:

“Well, Benny,” she took a deep breath. How was she supposed to explain the facts of life to a
six-year-old, when she barely understood them herself? “Sometimes, in a litter of kittens, there
is one that isn’t strong enough and the mama kitty abandons it, and we have to take that kitten
away so the others can thrive. You see, if that one is sick and can’t make it, it’s better for the
others if it goes away.”

The passage is rich with meaning for events in the dark story, but it also suggests some of the broader themes in this fine collection: abandonment, loss, and the trials of motherhood. It speaks to the sadness that issues from the ways people treat one another, but also to the familiar dysfunctional dynamics of the American family, and of the disproportionate share of the fallout that women in particular bear.  

It’s a notable passage because Lucas’ collection is about women’s trauma. The stories involve the lives of mothers, daughters, wives, and lovers in rural and small-town settings. What’s so impressive is the way in which Lucas manages to write about the collective trauma of these women, their shared trials, even though the circumstances in which they live are so varied. Whether professional or unemployed, addicted or sober, gay or straight, the women of Lucas’ world share a common plight: They are women and, as such, often assume the burdens that men avoid, and endure the abuse that men deliver.  

Happily, the collection is so artful, so clever and well-written, that one never thinks of it as a polemical work, as a collection with a political “message.” Instead, like any good work of art, the message emerges naturally from the craft, from the beauty of the writing. 

In the story, “You Know What They Say About Karma,” Lucas writes of a working nurse, Brittney, a woman also tasked with the care of her young child, Jamie, in the wake of the father’s imprisonment. Of course, the story is so much more than that of a deadbeat dad and the frustrated mother who bears the brunt of the ill-conceived union. On some level, Brittney wants the relationship to work, wants the father, Kyle, to help in the care of their son. She also misses the intimacy—she’s been loyal while her man has been incarcerated--and desires the complete, functional family of her dreams. But on some level, she knows that it’s not to be. She’s seen too much of things; she knows better: “Single mom life.  No one else to cook, or clean or get up with Jamie, unless like last night her mom took him. But that was really cause her mom didn’t trust Kyle. Never had. Probably never would. ‘Too much like your daddy,’ she said. ‘I thought you knew better.’”

It’s Lucas’ clever plotting, her twists and turns, and her masterful 
use of little moments, kernels of truth contained in simple gestures—a word or two, a surprise line of dialogue, or an object itself—that
elevate the stories.  

Against her better judgment, Brittney makes decisions that end badly, and so she tries once and for all to right the course of things. But it’s a curse. Like so many of the women characters in the collection, she’s doomed, fated to repeat the unfortunate patterns of those before her, as her own mother intimates above. But again, it’s Lucas’ clever plotting, her twists and turns, and her masterful use of little moments, kernels of truth contained in simple gestures—a word or two, a surprise line of dialogue, or an object itself—that elevate the stories.  

Consider “Molasses in Winter,” a story about a mother who’s battled weight issues her entire life. In Lucas’ capable hands, the story covers so much more ground than we imagine it will at the outset. In part, the tale is about how food, eating, and body awareness shape women’s consciousness—not only with respect to themselves but to others, too. Shea is married to a cop, a heavy-set guy who eats what he wants, and no one says “boo” about it. Shea’s desire--to look desirable to him—sets her on a covert exercise course that intersects with a case her husband ends up working. Again, the narrative arc is clever, and the connections between Shea’s motivations and her relationship with her husband and the case, are brought together so artfully that the reader marvels. One of the thematic strands Lucas explores here, one that runs through much of the collection, is again, motherhood, in all of its complexity, in all of the competing forces and needs that shape it. The narrator says: “She’d spent nearly the last decade of her life cleaning up after small people and keeping them alive. Which was why she looked like she did. Which was why, she reminded herself, she needed to move her ass.”

Like Shea, Lucas’s characters are often aware of the ironies of their situation, and even of the fact that they may be charting the wrong course. But they go on anyway, for this or that reason. And this is part of what makes the collection so excellent. Lucas can portray self-aware female characters—people who argue with themselves and make fateful decisions—but as readers we can understand the sad motivations for their choices, and love them anyway, nay, even more so. Here in the Dark is a fantastic collection of stories that will move you in lots of different ways, a crafty book full of depth, sorrow, and beauty.

Chris McGinley
is the author of the story collection, Coal Black (Shotgun Honey, 2019) and the forthcoming novel Once These Hills (Shotgun Honey, 2023).  He writes for LitHub and other outlets.

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