Peter William Warn's Reviews > Women and Other Animals

Women and Other Animals by Bonnie Jo Campbell
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Apr 13, 2012

it was amazing

Nothing much happens in Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories, or very much does. Her writing in Women and Other Animals is as vibrant and evocative as a fine oil painting. It invites one to see carefully captured details and to ponder their context.

If you look at Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and see a smiling woman, you will find much to enjoy in Campbell's stories. If you wonder why she is smiling and what the smile led to, you will find much more.

In one of Campbell's stories, a girl's trip with her mother to the town garbage dump is simply a routine errand. Or it is a flight over the lush landscape of a young imagination. The featured rhyming game hints at the ineffable links between parent and child, who know each other as they can know no one else.

In "Shotgun Wedding" the tale hauntingly makes good on its title, but not in a way one might expect. In another story, a young woman exults in the new and wonderful power of her extraordinary chest:

Unfettered by gravity, Debra's breasts rose and floated above her rib cage, helium-filled flesh dirigibles, buoyant and blissful honeydew melons. Debra had been heartbroken this summer when her ex-best friend Nicole had invited another girl to go with her to Disney World, but it seemed God had taken pity on her, and as a consolation had sent her these sacred globes, these heavenly orbs, these twin suns around which the rest of her body now revolved.

Or perhaps the breasts are extraordinary only to the person on whose body they have suddenly appeared.

The treasures in Campbell's stories are varied. Their richness can lure a reader more strongly to one than to the others until the allure of another makes it most highly prized. One stand-out among the exceptional others is "Gorilla Girl," in which a young woman finds an unusual outlet for her rage and alienation, which might be more than the typical emotional tumult of adolescence. Tempting also is "Old Dogs" a seemingly simple description of three women and their dogs sleeping in one room during winter. They share history and much more as well, and Campbell's prose allows us to share it all with them.

Among the sixteen gems in Women and Other Animals, "The Smallest Man in the World" is especially dazzling. Our narrator is a woman who might be especially beautiful. We have only her word for that.

There is no doubt that she has given unusual thought to the power of beauty. The narrator's beauty causes her to feel kinship with a man who makes his living as a circus freak.

At the jukebox the two men who accompany the Smallest Man in the World stand near him so they can form an equilateral triangle, as if this can protect him. They are heartbroken at what transpires between their small man and the showgirls. After all, they must love him; they have become attached to his smallness the way men become attached to my beauty. When a man is with me, he cannot forget my beauty the way he forgets everything else. Intimate conversations and promises are forgettable, as are meals created with attention to every detail of taste and presentation. Even the loveliness of naked breasts can mean nothing when skin remains covered for too long. But his size is a constant reminder, as is my face.

The story concludes with the beautiful woman preparing to reach out to the Smallest Man in the World, although the tale is almost certain not to end there. Campbell's storytelling creates momentum that carries her characters into readers' thoughts. Without trying to, we imagine what will happen next. We see the possibilities as clearly as if they were our memories.

Many of the stories in Women and Other Animals were published originally in such publications as Alaska Quarterly Review, So to Speak and Third Coast. "Shifting Gears," a rich and surprising glimpse into how a man tries to adjust after a divorce, was the official story of the 1999 Detroit Auto Show.

Perhaps such honors are not on par with, say, landing a book on top of The New York Times best-seller list or winning a Pulitzer Prize. It might be said that Campbell has not yet reached literature's big time.

That might be said, but only with regret.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Dan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dan Trudeau Gorilla Girl is one of those stories you finish and realize you've just read something unlike anything else. That's a rare experience and you have to tip your hat to an author that can pull if off.

message 2: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Hurt-Mullen I'm surprised you haven't recommended her to me before, Peter!

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