‘Beautiful, shattered people everywhere’ [book review]

A review of Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

Every now and then you come across a book that makes your heart beat a little faster. Kimberly King Parsons’ Black Light was the latest such book for me, a short-story collection of such virtuosity that I devoured it in almost a single sitting. For any writer, this collection would be accomplished; as a debut effort, it is even more impressive.

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

I used to struggle to read short stories, until I learned how to do it properly. For me, the trick lies in being able to let go of the need for endings – very often a short story will simply stop, cutting you out of the characters’ lives just as you were beginning to get into them. I used to find this frustrating; now, I love it. As an avid people-watcher, short stories provide much of the same thrill. Without ever knowing too much about them, you can enjoy a glimpse of someone else’s life, either forgetting about them afterwards or allowing whatever you saw to fuel your imagination.

This is exactly the kind of effect that Black Light has: small glimpses into fascinating lives that are so richly textured, so vividly described, that it’s almost like watching them in real life. Although there are several threads that run through the collection – sex (very often between two women), desire and first love, alcohol, motherhood and human bodies – each story is distinct and sharply defined. The worlds they play out in too are different, ranging from gritty urban streets to the flat, dusty landscapes lining an unnamed highway. Parsons is a native of Texas, and although only a few stories name this state specifically, she is incredibly adept at conjuring a sense of vast, bone-dry landscapes, beautiful and bleak in equal measure.

Spatial awareness feels particularly important in Black Light, in which characters seem to be constantly aware of their bodies and the spaces they inhabit in the world. In ‘Foxes’, a mother and her daughter huddle in a play tent made of sheets draped over stools, the mother’s bottle of sherry slowly moving from a place of relative safety beyond the cotton walls to a position within the tent, literally and metaphorically between them. In ‘We Don’t Come Natural To It’, two anorexic co-workers are obsessed with making their bodies smaller, concerned with the space they take up in the world in the most literal way possible. Several stories see characters interacting in the confines of cheap hotel rooms, their sordid surroundings adding an extra dimension to the conflicts and fantasies that play out between them. In others, intimate encounters take place in cars, in narrow bunk beds, in institutions closed off from the rest of the world. And in an image I found particularly arresting, the narrator of ‘The Soft No’ describes the sky above her hometown as ‘more like a lid than a promise’.

For the epigraph of Black Light, Parsons has chosen a line by the poet Richard Siken, taken from his collection Crush: ‘Cut me open and the light streams out.’ While she is concerned with light in the standard sense – scenes glimpsed in the beams of torches, light filtering through closed curtains, sunsets and moonlight and teenagers bowling in the glow of UV paint – Parsons is also writing about the light within people. This is made abundantly clear in the first story of this collection, ‘Guts’, in which the narrator has imagined a divine glow emanating from sick or injured people ever since she began dating a doctor. As her life slips gradually out of control, aided by alcohol, her own lack of self-worth and her boyfriend’s manipulative power, she begins to see this glow in almost everyone. Though not repeated as a motif, the implication is evident in every single one of Parsons’ stories. We are all of us diseased in some way. We are also full of light, and the incisions life makes in us will cause it to stream out.

This back and forth of light – now radiating outwards, now a beam turned inwards on a particular subject – is certainly one of the aspects that makes Black Light so captivating, but what I loved most of all about these stories was their rhythm. Parsons’ words flow across the page in prose that is akin to poetry; every word chosen with immense care to ensure that sentences, paragraphs, entire stories add up to one coherent movement, a rhythmic stream of sound and meaning. It’s true that they are very often gritty, sometimes too close to the bone, occasionally jarring in the people and events Parsons has chosen to write about. Yet despite all that lies beneath the surface, these stories have a unique ebb and flow. The overall effect is utterly beautiful.

At the beginning of ‘Foxes’, the narrator tells us that her daughter is ‘happiest describing dark-spattered worlds’. The same could be said of Parsons herself, who seems to see the light in humanity but also the darkness spattering the world we live in – whether in the way we treat one another or the view we have of ourselves. The stories in Black Light scratch the surface and draw blood, often ending in an unexpected denouement that left me wondering what could possibly have happened to the characters afterwards. Just as the narrator of ‘Guts’ sees ‘beautiful, shattered people everywhere’, so too do they appear within the pages of Black Light. In the end, I didn’t hold out much hope for any of them.

Although she has published her work widely in journals and magazines, Parsons is a new author to me and may well be to many other readers. Black Light is an astonishing debut that promises great things to come from a writer who observes the world around her with a keen eye and great sense of humanity. To write well about flawed people takes immense compassion, and there is plenty of that in Black Light – not to mention an exquisite way with words. Coming to this collection with no expectations, I was bowled over by what I encountered. Surprising, unsettling and thoroughly mesmerising in the way she pits the worlds within us against the one around us, Parsons is a writer who goes straight to the heart.

Black Light: Stories by Kimberly King Parsons is published in paperback and digital by Atlantic Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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