Have you ever had a dream where you are not yourself? It is such a strange experience and when it happens to me, I experience a double consciousness. I know that what is happening is happening to me but I also know that I am not the me that I have always been. Georgina Bruce’s debut collection, This House of Wounds, is very much like entering into that sort of dream. Bruce uses ultra close perspectives to bring you into a sort of waking dream and deploys dream logic in a way that is actually comprehensible on the page. There is so much beauty and terror in this book.
One of my favorite stories in the collection highlights everything that is going right with Bruce’s stories. In “Cat World” we get a protagonist, Little One, who is an orphan girl living on the street. The horrors of her world are the real terrors of the women and girls who are considered disposable in our world—sex slavery, starvation, murder. Bruce gives Little One, and us, the mercy of Travel Gum which allows the chewer to experience an alternate reality. Little One calls it Cat World. I don’t want to include story spoilers but what I think is great about this story is the way a little magic and fantasy can make us pay attention to the people we tend to ignore. It can persuade our hearts that those who are often disregarded are worthy of our attention and care. This is the particular magic of Georgina Bruce’s writing.
These characters are definitely not well cared for Alices and all of them are in peril. There’s a through line looking-glass world that ties the stories together. It is a dark world that we get to explore from many different vantage points and we are never sure if this is this a simulation, a dystopian future, a parallel world, or a haunted house of mirrors. The answer seems to always be yes, and more. Bruce is content to let us squirm in the bigness and mystery allowing a sense of dislocation that builds throughout the collection.
The stories in the collection literally open and close on each other and the structure of the collection feels like the art installation house in the story, “Kuebiko,” which also contains the line that names the book.
The way that Bruce uses myths and fairy tales summons this sense of familiarity for the reader. But fairy tale and myth is only the language that she is using. The stories defy narrative expectations and turn on you like a knife.
The femininity explored in this collection is mostly cishet and white. Bruce does make some forays into queer characters and characters of color but in my opinion they are only rising to the level of representation. Their identities are not a full part of their character yet. These characters are not displaying differences that are wrought by power structures that work against them. I accept that this is a fantasy realm and it is not necessarily the western world as we know it but the writer is from this world and the power structures that are acting against the other white women characters are definitely recognizable from our world. The cool thing about a debut collection though, is seeing a writer grow across the stories. And this is no exception. All writing, including this review, is the work of a person in progress. As such, I have faith that Bruce is a curious writer who will seek out the learning necessary to bring these characters to better life.
I don’t know if it is correct to say I loved “The Queen of Knives,” but that story affected me. I think it is the scariest story in the collection. It’s terror lies in the relationship between mother and daughter and what is heritable. Upon embarking on motherhood we don’t necessarily consider what we will hand down of ourselves to our children, at least I didn’t before reading this story. The horror of this story has something to do with knowing the terror of yourself as a mother and having a child anyway, and then seeing that regrow in your offspring.
I’m sure it means that I was lucky, but entering motherhood was the first time I knew that I would die. I didn’t have any premonitions about the birth, and really it was all fine, but once my baby was alive in the world, I knew for certain that one day I would die. Entering motherhood was also the first time I had to consider the possibility of my body being sliced open and my guts removed so that a parasite I had been growing inside my body could get safely out into the world to wreak whatever havoc she may. That I love her is somehow even more frightening. This is body horror on every level. It is also a horror (among many) that only those born with female reproductive organs will ever have to consider facing. Those of us who live with this biology are tough of body and spirit. This is the horror that Georgina Bruce conjurs and more.
This House of Wounds is rife with tough women and Georgina Bruce proves it by breaking them open. She is merciless with her characters. “Little Heart” opens:
This quote could serve as the about-the-author, at least for this book. The collection opens with a woman smashing her face into a mirror. There are women ripped apart in countless ways both physically and emotionally, all to prove the toughness and resilience of the female spirit. Even though there is darkness and fantasy here, there is also a lot of humanity.
This House of Wounds, the latest great short story collection from Undertow Publications drops June 4th and is available to pre-order now directly and as ever from the evil empire. If you, like me, are interested in the themes of mirrors and mothers, bodies as machines, daughters and madness, flowers and blood, this is a book for you.