Book Review: Our Former Lives in Art – Short Stories by Jennifer S. Davis

Jennifer S. Davis’s first collection of short stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award five years ago. It’s been a wait, but fans of the first book won’t be disappointed with the follow-up.

The stories in Our Former Lives in Art shine floodlights on Southern folks in various walks of life. Davis has the gift of unfolding both a setting and the nature of a character – and sometimes of a couple – in few words, while zeroing in on a turning-point moment in the life of a protagonist.

She’s highly aware of the artifice of her work. In “Rapture,” a no-longer-young housewife “invites women over to talk about books with female characters who do similar things until one day their lives are changed by this or that.” In “Pilgrimage in Georgia,” a famous but blocked writer moves to a small town seeking authenticity, only to find that what appears “real” isn’t necessarily what it seems. Often when I start reading a piece of fiction and encounter characters who are writers, I get turned right off, but that didn’t happen here. A protagonist’s profession or educational level doesn’t matter; in these stories, failure and frustration are equal-opportunity employers. Moments of transcendence, rare though they may be, don’t discriminate either.

Often the turning points that quicken these stories involve trust, or the failure thereof. In “Blue Moon,” a young woman named Eva has such trouble facing her feelings that she’s developed an annoying habit of expressing herself in song lyrics. “‘Henry,’ I’d said as he was packing his things. I gave him my mournful stare – the look he’d loved when we still wanted each other bad enough to lie about who we really were. ‘We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.'” When her best friend Misty finds religion and drifts away, Eva reaches a turning point. Interestingly, we don’t find out whether she decides to give Henry another chance. What matters is that we’ve come to know the character, and we’ve witnessed her important moment.

In “Ava Bean,” a home care worker who has lost custody of her daughter reflects on trust: “Until Lucy, Charlotte didn’t understand anything about how the world works, about how one person can shape the course of another’s life as much by absence as anything else, how a stranger’s trust might be the closest thing to salvation you’re ever offered.” Usually Davis gives her characters just the right amount of that sort of rumination. She shows the important stuff, while telling just enough.

Trust is also the main point of “Lily,” in which a social program pairs up a rebellious and cocky teenage girl with a lonely retired man. When Lily asks Alfred what he did before he got sick, he replies, “I reckon the same that I do now. Sit at home and wish I’d done something different.” Davis sums up Lily’s parents’ relationship in another marvel of concision, one among quite a few in the book: “Both of her parents like barbecues, cold beer, Neil Diamond, and bingo. Some stretch this into a marriage, and they did, and then they didn’t.”

Lily’s progression toward trusting Alfred may come a little faster than one might have realistically expected, but the opening story, “Giving Up the Ghost,” is the only one I found unfulfilling. Its premise feels contrived, and I didn’t buy some of the dialogue.

Except for that near-miss, these stories are right on target. They leave one not only admiring the author’s pinpoint writing style but also feeling that one’s understanding of humanity has deepened a bit.

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