“Nature. You don’t romanticize it,” one character says admiringly to another in Lisa Norris’s short story collection Women Who Sleep with Animals. Indeed, several of the nine stories, set mostly in Virginia, feature painters and photographers who are more likely to use roadkill than bucolic landscapes as their subject matter.
There is no simple equivalence, however, between the characters and their author. Norris’s depiction of nature is too complex, subtle, and intriguing to compartmentalize it neatly as either romanticizing or its opposite.
Certainly the characters take solace from the beauty of forests, mountains, and open spaces, often the subject of the book’s most lyrical passages. “The insects are loud sometimes during a Virginia summer,” a character observes, “and the chorus came up as we sat outside in the darkening woods . . . I dissolved into something that vibrated, hummed, and chirped along with the creatures of the forest.” Out West a character watches as “the sky moved like a series of veils tossed into the wind. The fabric to the west was clear, cloudless, the slanting light of dusk turning it purple. To the east, high anvil-shaped clouds gathered, some gray, others pure white . . . in the rearview mirror I could see gray-black fingers connecting the sky to the earth.”
The author’s stance toward humans and animals, however, is more ambivalent. Norris is unflinching in her descriptions of the human body and its flaws. All of her main characters are women, mostly in their late 40s or 50s, and they’re well aware of their “thickening waists” and “sagging skin.” “I was an ordinary fifty-three,” observes a character, “with the swaybacked look of a woman who’s had a child, belly and thighs softening, dark hair with streaks of gray.”
Norris is similarly matter-of-fact in portraying the characters’ sex lives. Sex scenes in fiction are tricky for authors: the more specific you get, the more difficult it is to strike a balance between embarrassingly coy and off-puttingly vulgar. Norris manages to be explicit without being obscene. In fact, the sex in these stories isn’t even erotic—in some cases because the sexual interaction is so fraught with anxiety, and in one case (the opening story, “Dark Matter”) because the wisecracking narrator and her husband of 21 years are so endearingly funny.
The depictions of animals follow an interesting arc. In the collection’s second story, “Bear B45,” Eva, a research scientist, has to carry out measurements on a hibernating mother bear and her new cubs. “Touching bears is a thrill in itself,” Eva knows. When she crawls into the den to begin the first stage of tranquilizing the animal, she sees “the mother bear’s open eyes, and that’s her reward”; she marvels at the “miracle of biology, the way her metabolism slows almost to nothing as new life emerges from her, beneath the earth.”
It’s easy, at first, to forget this miraculous quality of animals as one moves forward in the collection, as subsequent stories feature animals killed in accidents or for the sake of scientific research. The human characters’ varied reactions to these deaths are skillfully woven into stories involving more familiar human dilemmas like rejection, illness, and disappointment.
In “The Opening,” for example, 53-year-old Diane is unnerved by the callousness of her neighbor, Kay, a painter and photographer. When Kay’s car hits a doe on an icy mountain road, she busies herself taking pictures while Diane has to decide whether to seek help or put a swift end to the deer’s suffering. Gradually we learn that Diane, too, has had lifelong ambitions to paint, and has only begun to eke out time and space for her art: a few hours on Saturday mornings in a corner of her basement.
Since Kay is such an unsympathetic character, the story’s message at first glance seems to be the age-old warning aimed at ambitious women: success comes at a price; you can be successful or happy, but not both. But the story is much more complex than that. Kay, after all, is doing what Diane wants to do: become immersed in her art. And Kay does create truly memorable and beautiful work. The tension isn’t neatly resolved, and the story’s title invites us to contemplate the multiple meanings of the term “opening”—not just the opening night of an artist’s exhibition, but the seizing of an opportunity, the chance to break into something formerly inaccessible, even if it means exploiting an exquisite animal’s harsh fate. (And, a character muses in another story, aren’t we animals, too, “like the ducks with their slippery intestines, their sleek brown livers”?)
As the death toll of fictional animals mounted, I started longing to see them presented as non-abject, either thriving in their own environments or connecting with humans in positive ways. I was rewarded by the title story, the last in the collection. Tammy, the narrator of “Women Who Sleep with Animals,” is a painter, but unlike artists in the other stories, she doesn’t take dead animals as her subject matter. An enormous painting called Spice-scape, for example, features “yellow rectangular spice containers with their red caps opening into a dreamscape of animals: red and blue-checkered elephants with big blue third eyes; a giant tabby cat, curled tail around paws. . . . In a corner of the canvas coiled a rattlesnake of colored threads.”
Though Tammy has been jilted by her husband of 29 years, she derives real joy from her art, from the beauty of the forest surrounding her house, and from the nine cats who live with her. She has achieved what the other protagonists are still striving for. Maybe that’s what allows her to appreciate the mysterious beauty of her animal companions: “The vibrations of their purring,” she says of her cats, “were like the engine that drove the whole world.”
Rosalie Morales Kearns is the author of the short story collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous, 2012). One of the stories in the collection earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. She is the founder of the Lake House Collective, a group of book reviewers focusing on books by women authors.