Triumphing over Destruction

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

National Book Award winner Ellen Gilchrist has written a collection of short stories entitled Acts of God which charts various character’s responses to the sometimes shattering and random events of life. The title story which opens the books tells how the arrival of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico sets off a chain of events which lead to the death of an elderly couple. While the hurricane is not “responsible” for their deaths in the typical sense, Gilchrist shows how inexorably the presence of the storm leads to an unexpected death for William and Amelie McCamey. Unfortunately, a strong naturalistic story is marred by a moralizing conclusion that attempts to find meaning in this random set of acts.

Such moralizing is an unfortunate part of many of these stories, and as a result the collection often verges on becoming sickeningly sweet. Stories like “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas” and “High Water” get mired in the sweetness, while stories like “Collateral,” in which a single mother is called up by her National Guard unit to help rescue people stranded in the aftermath of a hurricane, are able to hold their own against the moralizing that occurs.

The only story that escapes the sweetness trap–and not coincidentally the strongest story in the collection–is “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath.” In this story, Philippa, an aging but still beautiful woman who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, decides that she is not going to let her body be ravaged by the terrible disease. She decides that she will kill herself alone. She plans out the event, determines what to tell her husband, Charles, and what not to tell him, and completes the act. The characters react as they would, and there is no attempt on Gilchrist’s part to make some cosmic, feel good point about the suicide.

The dispassionate tone of “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath” is precisely the tone that is needed more often in this collection. Many of the stories begin with a similar tone but devolve into the sweetness that undermines the stories. While Gilchrist’s prose is as strong as ever, this book is not among her best works.


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