Little Sinners, And Other Stories by Karen Brown (University of Nebraska Press; 208 pages; $17.95).
Author Karen Brown has won several awards for her fiction writing. Reading her new tightly-knit, intimate collection of short stories entitled Little Sinners, And Other Stories, it is easy to understand why. Brown’s first collection, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 and The Best American Short Stories 2008. Little Sinners recently received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. When you read Brown’s work, you know you are in the hands of a skillful craftsman in her prime. Little Sinners is seductive and captivating as it explores the complicated and complex world of domesticity.
Although Brown features male characters, most of her principal personalities are women. Brown’s world is a woman’s world, one in which females defy stereotypes and carve out places and roles of their own. Unexpected consequences ensue, and the women must always pick up the pieces in the aftermath. All of Brown’s stories are very true to life because, as women, we know that is often the case.
Her vignettes are slices of domestic life, written with passion and, above all, realism. Some tales are erotic; some are suspenseful; all are compelling. Among the strongest stories in the collection are the title story “Little Sinners,” “Swimming,” “Stillborn,” “The Philter,” and “An Heiress Walks into a Bar.”
An adult woman remembers a horrible trick she and her best childhood friend played on a little girl in “Little Sinners.” “We weren’t bad girls,” the narrator insists. “We were feral, unequivocally vicious, like girls raised by the mountain lions that occasionally slunk out of the wilderness….” The girls never expected what happened next, and the woman still carries a great amount of guilt many years later.
In “Swimming,” a married woman and her lover swim the pools of her neighbors in the dark of night. When they are seen, they become the talk of the neighborhood. The woman, though, is in for a big surprise when she catches her daughter and a boy in the family pool.
“Stillborn” is my favorite of Brown’s short stories and also her best. Diana, who is six-months pregnant, and her husband move into a cottage on the Long Island Sound. He has cheated on his wife but promises it won’t happen again. Diana seeks solace in the garden. She digs in the dirt only to discover small bones buried there. “Femur, fibula, humerus, clavicle. Tiny bones, delicate and dirt-stained,” Brown writes. Diana “stopped digging, the bones uncovered.” She thinks, “I’ve dug too deep.” The bones are of a baby. Diana assumes the child was stillborn; the parents, she guesses, buried the dead infant in their yard as was the custom in earlier days. However, when Brown shifts perspective from Diana to her neighbor, Mrs. Merrick, we see a different, and darker, side of the story. This is truly where Brown shines as she shows domestic relationships, like plants in a garden, can have blights.
The most disturbing and chilling of all the stories in Little Sinners is “The Philter.” Kit, a troubled housewife, meets Sarah in a grocery store. Sarah’s mother has disappeared; the teen confides in Kit and practically drags her to her home for dinner. When Sarah shows Kit how she spies on her own house, the duo see way more than they bargained for. There is a voyeuristic quality and an illicitness to this piece. Brown focuses on silences, what is unspoken, and on body language. I was just as uncomfortable as Kit seemed to be. It becomes clear that there is more to the disappearance of Sarah’s mother.
In another favorite story of mine, “An Heiress Walks into a Bar,” Esme is diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that killed her mother. She grapples with her own mortality and the absence of her father, who disappeared years before. When she was twelve, “her father put on his pale blue pinstripe suit, custom-made for a previous trip to the Bahamas, and left, never to be heard from again.”
Brown’s emotional stories cut to the quick. They wound; they scar. The stories in Little Sinners are intelligent, dark, deep, and murky, much like a woman’s soul. Brown has a keen sense of what works. At only 194 pages, Little Sinners is short, but its issues are weighty. I dare you to read Little Sinners and come away empty.