“What Their Spirits Have Denied”: Robert Crooke Reviews A HEAVEN OF THEIR CHOOSING by Joann Smith

Many of the elegant stories in Joann Smith’s debut collection turn on moments of sudden insight. In “Phlebotomist’s Day” a dissatisfied wife awaits her biopsy result and confronts the subtle reluctance of her spirit to know itself. A young mother struggling with an adopted toddler’s nightly terrors faces her own spiritual attachment disorder in “You’re Still Here.” A mature woman recovering from cancer on a small beach, in “A Prayer at the Sandbar,” recalls the sense of independence that had seemed so important to her younger self.

Smith’s stories have prompted comparisons with James Joyce for their ironic treatment of isolation, loneliness, and regret. Indeed, the poignant “Seamus” feels strikingly reminiscent of “The Dead.” Yet the indelible connection of past and present in her work—the undercurrents of memory and emotion—also bring to mind E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Edith Wharton.

Her characters’ dramatic, often metaphorical, realizations of what their lives have lacked, what their spirits have denied, can be harsh and funny all at once. A resentful widow in “Something Grand” undergoes that sort of epiphany during the funeral she has hastily organized for her husband in the parish school gymnasium after a recent fire has destroyed the church:

Once seated, Mary tried to pray again but couldn’t. A cold practicality, she realized, had allowed her to give her husband this preposterous funeral, as if it were nothing more than an item on a to-do list. That’s what she had let her life become—a to-do list. And here is where that list of a life had gotten her and Mike. She reached out to pat the coffin but it was farther away than she estimated, and her hand swiped the air.

In “Purge” a woman recuperating from cancer embarks on a house cleaning project that feels like another form of tumor excision. All of her books, her clothing, even pieces of jewelry, are assessed for their worth in a new life. Ironically, she finds that many items carry memories which complicate her wish to start over without looking back:

She read that book and won’t read it again, so it can go … This one, she started three times. But it was a gift from someone who still loves her. Does she throw it out because she doesn’t love him? Put it in the laundry room of her building where someone might take it, start it, not finish it. Keep it for now—a reminder there’s someone out there loving her.

Lost chances and youthful misconceptions play out with melancholy effect in “Gravestones.” Roberta Levine, retired and single, volunteers at a Long Island military cemetery where she happens on the gravestone of a recently-deceased James Reilly. There was a Jimmy Reilly who had worked at the pharmacy in her old neighborhood, and whom she had agreed to meet at a Knights of Columbus dance:

She recognized the name on the gravestone immediately and the date of his birth made him the right age. From time to time she still thought about him. He had asked her to dance and she said no. Not that she didn’t want to—she very much did—but she thought he had been too forward, putting his arm around her waist as if they were already a couple. “Not just yet,” she remembered saying, smiling as she lifted his hand from her hip. James Reilly. He was everything she wanted—tall and handsome with his black hair and blue eyes, charming and funny … She expected him to come back; she might have even said confidently to a friend, “He’ll be back.” But he didn’t come back.

On her last day as a volunteer, having decided to enter graduated care, Roberta leaves a smooth little rock on the Reilly gravestone in keeping with her Jewish background. A gift, she calls it, as she contemplates how one silly move, one silly answer, could determine a person’s future.

In “Wall Man” a young mother, proud of having risen above her dreary upbringing, becomes dangerously fixated on caring for needy strangers. In “Heavenly” a sickly editor chooses her words too carefully and depends too much on others’ kindnesses. An earnest couple rides the emotional roller-coaster of miscarriage, adoption and parenthood in “Seeking Grace.”

And in the unsettling “Taking Notes” it is two years since a wife found letters to her husband from another woman stuffed into luggage the couple uses on summer vacations. The wife has kept the letters where she found them. The husband has forgotten about them, but the wife has not. Does she plan to leave him eventually, or to cloud their summers with subtle recrimination and punish him indefinitely?

Still the most haunting piece in this splendid collection is the title story in which jealousy, misunderstanding and teenage sexual tensions sever the longstanding friendship between two women and their families. With unerring wisdom and compassion for human nature, Joann Smith crafts fiction that consistently reveals the painful truths and hard-earned joys of our existence.

A Heaven of Their Choosing, by Joann Smith. Brooklyn, New York: 7.13 Books, September 2021. 167 pages. $19.99, paper.

Robert Crooke’s poetry has been published in the West Hills Review: A Walt Whitman Journal, and his short fiction has appeared in The Paragon Journal, Literary Orphans Journal, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. His latest novel, Letting the House Go, will be published in August 2022 by Unsolicited Press.

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