Review Content Warning: minor spoilers, sexual assault, child abuse
Book Content Warning: sexual assault, child abuse, incest, suicide, child death
In Jen Fawkes’s debut collection Mannequin & Wife: Stories, we see unsettling glimpses into other worlds where girls have superhuman strength and mannequins come to life. Still, in our journey through these magical worlds, the collection feels inconsistent and weighed down by stories that aren’t as polished.
With a collection of 22 stories, small satisfying bites of stories such as “We Can Learn from the Sawhorse” and “Well-Built Men, 18 to 30, Who Would Like to Be Eaten by Me” are sprinkled throughout. The collection undertakes—with some success—the difficult job of creating stories that delight while carrying unsettling premises and undertones.
However, such delicious bites of stories are overshadowed by the few stories which explore sexual abuse and consent in ways that some may not be comfortable with or agree with. Such stories delve into complex themes of intergenerational trauma, transformation, and abuse such as in “Possible Wildlife in Road,” where a married couple grapples with a home invasion sexual assault that results in the wife’s pregnancy. The story begins 12 years after the assault when Tillie, the wife, leaves her husband and son for unknown reasons. As the story continues, we explore how Tillie has narrativized her assault and discover the husband’s complicated past with consent and abuse as he grapples with his own sexual desire for his son.
The few stories that do explore themes of sexual abuse and trauma seemingly humanize the abusers, painting them as regretful figures, while victims are left to put together a narrative that makes sense to them as seen in the dual narratives within “Possible Wildllife in Road” and “Victoria.” And so, some might find themselves turning away from stories in the collection for the sympathetic way they portray sexual abusers.
The stories complicate the cultural narrative that the abused hate their abusers and acknowledge the complicated feelings that come with being abused by the one person you trust and love most. Even after someone you love hurts you in horrific ways, the story shows us how those abused may still carry love for their abusers. Even the husband in “Possible Wildlife in Road” says of his abusive grandfather’s death: “Once he was gone, I would be alone in the world, and no matter what he’d done, I didn’t want him to die. I wanted him to live forever. He’d taught me everything I knew, and I believed I loved him all my heart.”
And yet, the few stories that do explore themes of abuse and sexual trauma don’t acknowledge that this kind of abuse is not love and doesn’t acknowledge the high risk of someone with predatory thoughts being in close contact with children. In the world of “Possible Wildlife in Road,” as long as one doesn’t act on predatory thoughts or desires and cross the line of no return, it is fine to still be in close contact with children.
Although many of the stories are written with beautiful prose and feature interesting premises, the way they explore desire and abuse was disappointing and off-putting. The collection shines brightest when it leans into its magical realism and shows us the potential of magic in our lives, particularly in “We Can Learn from the Sawhorse,” where a woman reminisces on a childhood toy.
Other stories are less memorable and struggle with executing its interesting premises such as the duels that company executives use to resolve office squabbles in “Sometimes, They Kill Each Other” and a protagonist stealing a man’s identity during the Cold War in “Call Me Dixon.” And the stories that do delve into the complexities of abuse may cause readers to turn away from the sympathetic portrayal of the abusers and the moral compass the stories display.
JEN FAWKES has published fiction in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Best Small Fictions 2020, and elsewhere. Her story collection Tales the Devil Told Me won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and is forthcoming in May 2021. Jen is a four-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and her stories have garnered awards from The Pinch, Washington Square Review, Harpur Palate, Salamander, and others. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.
Mannequin & Wife: Stories can be purchased here.