Heather Bass’Review of Amber Sparks’ And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges

 

 

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges debuted in 2019 in hardcover, its cover art a cartoon hatchet on a bold pink background. It has recently been released as paperback with a very different, though still brightly-hued, cover, which hints at its more frenetic and cerebral feminist themes. Either choice makes for a colorful addition to any bookshelf—and a worthwhile challenge for any reader.

A couple of highlights of Sparks’ latest work is that it is both approachable to audiences and untraditional in format. The ambiguity of Sparks’ protagonists compliments our current moment. Some of these characters–such as those from “The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: a Nightly Log,” “Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park,” and “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend”—lack a definite sexual, racial, or gender identity; the stories are narrated in first person without clues about these details.

As an example, “The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: a Nightly Log” documents several nights of strange noises and unspeakable uneasiness from the narrator’s first person perspective. Little is known about the narrator’s identity in their entries such as Night Four’s: “I am hitting you on the shoulder. Wake up, wake up. Does our neighbor have dogs, I ask. No dogs allowed, you say, sleepy and annoyed” (135). Likewise, the neighbors and the narrator’s partner are open to the reader’s interpretation, molds that anyone could fill. We are more curious about what’s happening upstairs and dreading the inevitable confrontation rather than frustrated at not knowing details about the narrator. With this method, Sparks demonstrates how gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity are meaningless compared to quality of storytelling. This ambiguity also allows us to fear the unknown from the apartment above alongside our narrator.

While the narrator in “The Noises from the Neighbors Upstairs: a Nightly Log” is ambiguous, other protagonists are clearly female such as in “A Place to Hide Precious Things.” In this contemporary retelling of the fairy tale “Donkeyskin,” a princess refuses to marry and give up her dead animal skin so as not to be possessed, “the worst fate of all” (25). As with the source material, a beautiful queen dies and the sex-starved king turns to his equally beautiful daughter to be his new bride. Fearing both her father’s advances and displeasing him, the princess dons a donkey’s cadaver to run away from her dilemma. Sparks diverges from the original by having her unnamed princess keep her donkey’s remains and her freedom instead of casting off the cadaver for a prince’s promise of marital bliss. The princess’s refusal to be tied down by matrimony can be seen as revenge against her father’s incestuous wishes to wed her or as a would-be fairytale bride obtaining agency to her happily ever after. Many have lent their own retelling of “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin”—both on the page and on the screen—but Sparks still keeps the tale fresh using it as a satire.

Each story in I Do Not Forgive You is equally fresh as Sparks employs different muses, genres, and conventions. “Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls” is another fairy tale-inspired piece that transitions from “once upon a time” to our now but more akin to Giselle’s journey to New York in Disney’s Enchanted. Instead of the princess being literally pushed into the present by an evil crone, the queen intentionally flees from her kingdom from what she perceives as the Future. Eventually, she can no longer run from the threat that is the Future and meets a present-day woman in a bar, “Is the Future a nice place for girls, the queen asked, and the fit woman snorted. Not exactly, she said. But—and she eyed the queen’s cloak and shoes and hair—better than where you come from” (86). Like with “A Place to Hide Precious Things,” the conventional fairy tale ending is forsaken and thought more of a patriarchal prison. Many of Sparks’ stories in this collection have feminist overtones, insisting that females can be more than damsels in distress or kept women.

Sparks also plays with the fluid, chronological short story conventions in stories such as “DEATH DESERVES ALL CAPS: On Planning for My (Very Far-Off) Funeral” and “The Eyes of Saint Lucy.” “DEATH DESERVES ALL CAPS” is literally a list of the narrator’s demands for her posthumous sendoff:

1. Get it right, or I will haunt you all.
2. I write “far-off” so my parents, who find me morbid, will think of wills and distant relations instead of smashed china and the unreliability of actuarial science. “Very” was added to preserve the rhythmic integrity of the line. The parenthesis was included to please my fiancé—Hello, A.—who is an annoying stickler for punctuation. He is also an annoying stickler for Not Eating in Bed, and for Telling Others When They Are Wrong on a Small Point. He may or may not be invited to the final celebration.
3. Seriously, you have a lot of time to plan this thing. I don’t intend on heading into the metaphysical sunset for quite some time (143)

“DEATH DESERVES ALL CAPS” is unabashedly melancholic and a great example of Sparks’ humor in the face of the inevitable. “The Eyes of Saint Lucy,”on the other hand, is more experimental and reminiscent of Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits with its use of lists, dialogue, and traditional narration in a single piece. While it is concocted of varied styles, Sparks’ story maintains its unity as we see the narrator’s relationship to her mother and her mother’s morbid collection of martyrs. These shifts from traditional to conventional narration in Sparks’ stories suggest that the author is trying to snap her reader out of a passive perusal, forcing them to recognize what is being critiqued.

Sparks’ style in And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges is a must-have for literary adventurers with a cover pleasing to the eye and a style pleasing to the inner ear. At the heart of Sparks’ latest collection of stories is frustration—and maybe a little terror—towards the spaces women are forced to inhabit. The spaces that men condemn them to inhabit. They have become the literary damsel in distress or a tragedy on the page. It is no coincidence that most of Sparks’ female protagonists are nameless. Sparks throws in her humor with sardonicism to prevent these pieces from being one long feminist rant without losing her reader’s focus. Until we can answer in the affirmative, “Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls” we can look forward to more alluring covers and style from Amber Sparks.

Sparks, Amber. And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges. Liveright Publishing
        Corporation, 2020.