Tiny stories are powerful. In this age of quick Internet reads, long and meandering sentences that take their good old time getting to the point can rankle. Jules Archer knows the power in the small, as evidenced by her powerful collection All the Ghosts We’ve Ever Had.
It is perhaps the tightness of these pint-sized, connected stories that give them their punch. After reading through the collection, quite contentedly several times, first for content, then for pure pleasure, THEN, sheer greedy jealously (not really, just healthy envy!) for a key to her amazing technique, I am still awed with what each contains: rich detail, high-drama and not a wasted word anywhere.
This is a collection with a nod to a panoramic view of a young life, one of sorrow, intensity, love and pies—cherry pie, specifically. The ghosts alluded to are never far behind—in fact they permeate each and every story where the inciting incident will haunt and influence all of the narrators future relationships and decisions.
In the first story, we meet the young narrator waiting for her mother and her brand new sibling ( a sister!) to come home from the hospital. For all of her innocent waiting, that does not come to pass. Archer could be heavily dramatic here and burden the reader with melodrama thick as molasses, except she doesn’t. What she does is present the gentle launch of the first taste of grief which cannot be named or processed which will hang over her head in subtle but life defining ways for years to come. We witness her mother coming undone in her own private hell and her father’s brief indiscretion with the counterperson at a convenience store. Into each life a bit of sorrow must fall, but Archer’s narrator manages to live and breathe between the cracks---which is just one of the things that make this collection so satisfying: there are prisms of bright light that manage to peak through each shadow---just enough to offer a counterbalance to reality.
Archer is a master with understatement---I appreciate this so much as a reader. There is no manipulation of feelings here. The stories tell just enough---and as readers we can fill in the rest such as in Part I: A Man/Me:
I want to tell the man I am not here for his nonsense, I just bake pies. Bit I saying
nothing because he does not hold the gun right. The angle of it is crooked and
cruel. He will shoot me in the belly instead of the face. Let a handful of bullets
tear up the what-could-be.
The motifs throughout are satisfying and relatable. The talismans---the glass eye from the teddy bear her mother slowly rips, limb from limb in the empty nursery, and the pies that she bakes ---for herself and for others, symbolizing the both a feminine and feminist embodiment are, no pun intended, food for thought. To read these stories is to witness the almost imperceptible transition from childhood to adulthood and to understand how we claw our way through its sticky sickeningly sweet and bitter at the same time, years. And, I might add, live to tell the tale.
Thirty West Publishing House, 2018