And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe by Gwendolyn Kiste
JournalStone (April 2017)
267 pages; $15.93 paperback; $3.95 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia
And Her Smile With Untether the Universe is an amazing collection of speculative fiction by Gwendoyn Kiste which touches on surreal fantasy but never loses its grip on an all too tangible—sometimes painfully so—sense of reality. This is important for me, because I often find that happens with surreal stories of the fantastic. While I admire the world created and the surreal experience rendered, I sometimes feel distant from the characters and their experiences, and the stories fail to really impact me on an emotional level.
For example, I love Robert Aikman’s “strange stories,” (and I’ll talk about why in one of my upcoming installments of Revelations). But occasionally, the slide into the surreal is too abrupt, and I feel too disconnected from the story to feel it, emotionally.
Not so with Kiste’s collection, which assembles stories which are fantastical and surreal, but are still also relevant and connected to the human experience, making for a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding reading experience. The standouts for me were:
“Ten Things to Know About Ten Questions”—A perfect example of what Kiste has accomplished in this collection. The fantastic element: An epidemic is spreading across the world. People are vanishing. In an attempt to understand who is vanishing and why, authorities try and classify folks who are “likely” to vanish. What are the “traits” and “quirks” which makes one prone to vanishing? And to prevent others from vanishing, shouldn’t we segregate those who seem prone to vanishing from those who don’t? This becomes a powerful story about segregation, division, fitting in, and a longing for something more.
“The Clawfoot Requiem”—A moving story about a sister’s unending grief after her sister’s suicide, and the lengths she goes to preserve her sister’s presence.
“All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray”—A particularly deft subversion of fairy tale princes and their “princess brides,” again hinging on the theme of defying expectations and self-discovery, and the often dirty underbelly to fairy tale romances.
“The Man in the Ambry”—Molly Jane Richards writes letters to her imaginary friend, who lives in a closet, or an “ambry” (I also liked that the wiki definition of “ambry” is “a recessed cabinet in the wall of a Christian church for storing sacred vessels and vestments). The man in the ambry is the only one who understands her, is there for her, and truly believes in her. And at long last, Molly eventually flees a world that doesn’t understand her, to be with the man in the ambry.
“Audrey at Night”—Another powerful story of regret and longing, about a young woman regretting her past choices and the friendship she believes she destroyed. The ending of this was surprising, and very satisfying.
“The Five Day Summer Camp”—Seeing as Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorite dystopian novels of all time, dystopian stories are often a hard sell for me. They seem derivative and imitative. But this did it for me; a powerful statement once again about conformity and societies’ systematic oppression of our true selves. A story I’m definitely going to have my students read when we next read 451.
“And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe”—The collection’s title story, worth the price of admission alone. Especially because I’m sure all of us movie lovers have experienced this phenomenon: we discover, by accident, an actor or actress which never made it big, maybe almost did, but for one reason or other fell short. Our discovering this actor/actress, in a way, gives them a sort of immortality. They live on in our viewings and the viewings of others, and of course, given the speculative nature of this collection, I mean this literally. Also, I’m not always a fan of stories written in the second person, but it worked wonderfully here, because of this very relateable angle.
Highly recommended reading for lovers of the strange, the weird, and the surreal…but still, very human stories, which is most important of all.