By Kym Cunningham
In the interest of full disclosure: this review does not pretend to be unbiased (as if writing can be), as Johnson is a colleague and friend of the writer as well as her Co-Editor-in-Chief.
It is not often that reading a book makes me feel like a kid again. But that’s exactly what Couri Johnson’s debut short story collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, manages to achieve: a suspension of belief, that hunger to consume—more and more—pages curled beneath a comforter with a flashlight in hand. There’s something in the possible that Johnson taps into, a furtive, growing language that snakes its way into the reader’s body in writing as feral as her subject matter. There is always, Johnson suggests, something to unravel—even if it is only the self.
Make no mistake: these fifteen fabulist tales are in no way intended for children. They deal with (often fatally) adult material—the bitterness of unrequited love, drug abuse, trauma, parental death—in ways that eliminate the boundary between childlike wonder and the harsh reality of adulthood. Simply put: these stories are fairy tales with teeth. From an urbanized retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses to the downward spiral of Miloslav, a talking, performing bear, these stories interrogate the loneliness that is perhaps at the heart of the American condition. Indeed, it is difficult to read these tales and not feel both the desire for and the impossibility of connection.
Because that’s what these characters strive for—from the woman loved only by spiders to the anatomist who reconfigures skeletons as playmates after an earthquake—these characters express modern separation. They unravel how, even surrounded by people, we feel utterly alone.
And yet, Johnson’s stories do not lapse into melancholy; they are not overly sentimental, but always sharpened, incisive. That is, Johnson does not allow her readers to feel sorry for themselves, primarily because she emphasizes this connective urge above all. That is, the loneliness her characters experience is always set with and against the drive towards connection to feel, if not hopeful, important. And it is not only humans that suffer from this disconnection; rather, this sense of displacement also filters into the collection’s non-human characters in a way that builds the world as Johnson sees it.
And here perhaps lies the means behind this suspension of belief, this urge towards the possible. As we read, we are able to imagine a world in which the Queen of all Magic lives in a studio apartment on Fifth Avenue, or where a woman leaves a curlew as her daughter’s only inheritance. This is Johnson’s world, but perhaps more importantly, this is our world, too.
So take some time—wrap yourself in Johnson’s weeds. Let her stories offer the connection reality disavows.
Couri Johnson is a PhD student, writer, and force of nature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. You can find her book for sale online at http://www.bridgeeight.com/shop/ill-tell-you-a-love-story-april-20/