The Dark Dark review: vibrant renditions of people on the brink
Samantha Hunt’s stories are smart, benevolent explorations of complex emotions
Samantha Hunt: takes us through the looking glass, away from what we thought we knew.
The Dark Dark
“Then she raised the hoe above her head.” The Eudora Welty epigraph is a choice beginning for Samantha Hunt’s debut collection of stories featuring characters, most of them women, on the verge. The Dark Dark is part-feminist manifesto, part-fantastic tales of the unexpected that recalls the style and preoccupations of her two acclaimed novels. A woman turns into a deer. Two men live at the bottom of a nuclear missile. A harried mother quits her career as a drug dealer to become a writer. Which job is more dangerous?
Hunt writes with intelligence and benevolence, frequently wrong-footing the reader as she brings us into the “dark dark” of the title and the complex emotions of her characters. The collection’s longest, and arguably strongest piece, A Love Story, is narrated by the former drug dealer mother who hasn’t had sex with her husband in eight months. In a brilliantly funny voice – think Jenny Offill and Helen Simpson – she wonders if her husband’s disinterest means he’s cheating on her: “Most men I know speak about sex as if their needs are more intense or deeper than women’s needs. Like their penises are on fire and they will die if they can’t extinguish the flames in some damp, tight hole.” Broken into hormonally titled sections, everything from writing to motherhood to how no one wants to hear about middle-aged female sexual desire is acutely dissected.
The other nine stories also offer vibrant renditions of people on the brink in the present or dealing with a crisis from the past. Confusing at times with its multiple narrative shifts, All Hands is an engaging tale of a mass pregnancy at an American high school, subverting in its quiet way our affiliations with the words “mass” and “high school” in contemporary culture.
The laugh-out-loud funny Beast is a surreal tale about marriage, an affair, guilt, identity and finding our flock, or herd in this instance, as a couple morph into deer once the lights go off in the bedroom. The shocking transformation occurs in the detail: “My jaw extends, my tongue grows long and thick, my lips shrink before turning black and hard as leather . . . to lose your opposable thumbs, to have them bone up into hard hooves.”
Flair for metafiction
Affairs are recurring subject matter. The Yellow has the highly unusual structure of an accidental dog killing, illicit sex, a less accidental dog killing. Hunt is skilled at twists and turns, a writer who thinks ahead. The stories that top and tail the collection, both entitled The Story Of show her flair for metafiction. In the opening piece we meet Norma, married to Ted, and desperate for a child, “but then, every month her period comes, a cellar door slamming shut”.
Norma is trapped in her life, in her infertility, in the barren landscape of a gated community: “Rancho de Caza has certain rules, bylaws. Grass must be cut. No lawn ornaments bigger than one and one-half feet. No unapproved swing sets.” When Ted’s estranged sister, a crackhead who happens to have the same name as the narrator, turns up at the house pregnant, our Norma starts to have dark thoughts about what she might to do to Dirty Norma.
The closing story unsettles our assumptions, reintroducing Norma and offering fresh angles on the themes of monogamy and procreation. As both Normas read their own stories from a stenographer’s notebook, Hunt takes us through the looking glass, away from what we thought we knew. It is the perfect antidote to an earlier line: “Soon there will be nothing left that is unknowable, unlit and mysterious. There will be no more of the dark dark.”
Hunt’s debut The Seas won the National Book Foundation’s award for writers under 35. The New York writer’s second novel The Invention of Everything Else was shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2009. This new collection of stories comes critically acclaimed from America and recalls contemporaries like Christine Sneed, Laura van den Berg and, particularly, Diane Cook’s memorable debut collection from 2014 Man v Nature. It could easily work as a title for Hunt’s collection, whose stories of creation, technological innovation and historical revision see her brave characters take on forces much larger than themselves.
This is perhaps most evident in one of the standout stories in a standout collection. Mixing private devastation with public destruction, The House Began to Pitch sees narrator Ada try and beat nature in her new home in Florida. “A hurricane will just take your plywooded house and deposit it upside down across the street,” warns a neighbour. But after a late-term miscarriage on a day of national mourning some years earlier, Ada already knows exactly what that feels like, the echo of Joyce’s The Dead haunting her depiction: “[Her] misery was general and spreading through the hospital, down the corridor, out the emergency doors, and across Rhode Island, across the nation.” It’s the whoosh of the hoe being lifted above the head.