The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman is the first book to truly enrapture me in a very long time. It is a collection of stories in which the culminating effect of the collection overwhelms the intrigues of the individual stories. Well before the book’s quiet denouement, the varied tragedies of Nora Hanneman had already left me haunted.
The opening story, “Autopsy,” prepares us for tragedy, but not knowing the rest of what we are about to read, we might expect the tragedy to be much more conventional. In the structure of an autopsy report we get glimpsed access to the arrested life of the first Nora Hanneman, a young woman of 28 found strangled in a basement. Of course, the interrupted vitality of youth, the dashed potential of so much more life is intrinsically tragic. But as we read on, the heartbreak comes from living Nora’s lives, experiencing her frustrated desires, her unmade connections, all the little tortures that hollow out a cavity in her she longs to fill.
I call the Nora of “Autopsy” the first Nora Hanneman because while all but a few of the stories feature a protagonist named Nora, you would not be able to fit all of these Noras into a single timeline. You can, however, fit them into a single psychology, into a single world where the surreal often erupts to fulfill inexpressible desires, such as that feeling of wanting to be one with another so much you wish you could swallow them whole.
This singular Nora within the several Noras is desperate for change. The stories are thick with images of metamorphosis, of emerging from a chrysalis, breaking from an exoskeleton, or, especially, the shedding of skin. Nora’s world, however, is very pessimistic toward change. Every metamorphosis is a failed metamorphosis. There is always something rotten or misshapen in these forced transformations. Nothing emerges whole.
A similar desire and doubt is reflected in the stories’ attitude toward escape. In a book with so many references to birds and to wings and to flight, every bird is a failed bird. They are flightless. They are either tied down or caged or their eggs are broken before they can mature. In the final story, when we finally witness birds soaring and swooping in the sky, it is a fallen and broken bird, dead on the ground, which is given the most attention. So if the actual birds fail so repeatedly in their efforts in flight, it should be no surprise what happens to the humans who try to become birds. It should be no surprise when they are found “spread across the sidewalk below, the blood sprayed out like feathers alongside.” Nora’s strangled death in the first story and the death spread across the sidewalk below, are among the better escapes managed in the collection.
I wouldn’t read the stories in The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman one at a time or out of order. Originally, they may have been written separately and there are standouts. “Motherless” is a story of unblinking pathos and loss that deserves to be in college anthologies next to “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” “Skinned” could be described as a shorter, gender-swapped, twisted take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And the final line of “In the Blue” highlights the ambivalence of the central relationship. I could go on -- the built to order prostitutes of “On the Thinness of Skin” and the friendship formed through mutual spying in “The Watchers,” -- but while the stories might satisfy individually, here they have been recrafted to form an organic, emotional, and psychological whole. It’s not a novel. It is not one story, and, again, it is not even one Nora, but it is one impact.
The language and the poetry achieved by Courtney E. Morgan in this collection deserves special attention. Even when a turn of magical realism or surrealism would leave me momentarily confused, the current and rhythm of the language kept me riding onwards while the story explained itself, not always specifically, but emotionally. There were times I could not be certain what just happened, but I felt something definite had been communicated.
The poetry and the beautiful honesty throughout The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman continues to resonate with me several days after I put it down. I often open speculative fiction looking to take a trip on a plot, to take a journey into the fabulous. Rarely have I found myself discovering emotional truth. It was sharing Nora’s lives and not her autopsies, it was sharing her unfulfilled desperations from the optimism of childhood through the sad reality of adulthood, and not any single horrific image or occurrence, which continues to lurk with me. Which continues to haunt me.