I’d like to warn you that this review and the story it is about deal with domestic violence.
I’m writing this from a large wooden table in the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, a building I’ve dreamed of since I was a child. A child who read about this place in so many of the novels I checked out from the libraries at school and in whatever city we were living in, a child who searched those stories for what was needed at the time. There is a reason I believe in the specific power of literature, because as a child I desperately needed stories to guide me, to help me feel less alone, to deal with pain and suffering, to find the truth. I felt less alone in my own pain when I read stories of other people, even when those people were fictional. There is a comfort in seeing truth played out on the page, even hard and uncomfortable truths, even truths that shift. They give us permission to have our own stories, regardless of their origin, regardless of our ability to explain them.
When I first read Monet Thomas’ story “A Certain Woman” in Third Point Press, I was reminded of the feeling of being a child and finding a story that both terrified and comforted me in its truths, no matter how fluid they seemed to me. In this story we watch as a woman is hit again by her husband and then watch as she grapples with what came next, we see all the other ways this could have gone, we see the truth: that nothing is certain. I don’t want to talk about the specifics of this story or domestic violence because I want you to read this story, I want you to find what you need to there. I want you to catch a whiff of onions with the woman and hold your breath while she doesn’t hesitate.
What I want to talk about is why this story sank like a rock in my stomach and sat there, making me uncomfortable, but full. Though the narrator in this story says that “…human imagination could not begin to comprehend or predict what would emerge,” here is Thomas with her sharp pen, an immense imagination and capacity for compassion, helping us predict and comprehend. The story never asserts a Truth, but opens the door for many truths that echo in a place where there is “no real genesis” for violence and where violence creates a “dark place where no light could survive.” Even in the darkness, this story is a light. This story is a testament to human imagination and generous in the space it allows for its readers.
Unlike the Cosmo articles and Lifetime movies about domestic violence referenced in the story, literature has the ability to terrify and comfort simultaneously. Literature feels private. It is not flashy headlines or quick fixes that always seem to fail us, it is a story, just for you. In that privacy we are free to grapple with the stories we bring with us as we read while finding a level of comfort (though that word hardly seems right against the background of this story) in connecting with another’s story.
“A Certain Woman” is the perfect example of what George Saunders references when he says, “Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature.” At the end of Monet Thomas’ brilliant story we are left with this uncomfortable truth — we must wrestle with the complex and it will be work and we may never know who wins.
I never want to stop writing about this story because I never want to stop being overwhelmed by the power of stories, by the way a character from someone else’s imagination can come to take up residence in your own. But tell me, what are some stories that have done that for you?
Until next time