Five of the 17 stories explore the experience of being a widow. Anger and hurt alternate with clinical detail about how a wounded person negotiates daily routines and wards off the platitudes of friends and doctors: You should exercise, go on a trip, start dating again. Quite likely it is the same woman who reappears in each story because in each, the husband, probably in his late 40s, has died due to a medical error: too high a dosage of a drug.
What is unbearable, besides the death of a beloved spouse, is to be "defined now almost completely by negation, by what she is no longer, by what she cannot have, by absence, and most pointedly by a toxic physiology she would transfuse into almost anything else." The widow is acutely aware that in the eyes of others she has become less a person and increasingly a sexless ghost. Going to a church service, she is insulted by the bland and kindly blather: "somehow the contemporary world forbade lamentation, forbade the rending of clothes and the gnashing of teeth."
The other stories try varying techniques, with varying success.
Three of the shortest are lovely prose poems. In "The Long Table," children find a unique way to comfort an unhappy wedding guest. "The Moon" is a young woman's reverie of childhood and "Pink" is an original meditation on the color as it describes porcelain, at one end of a spectrum, and at the other, "the inner roseate folds of the labia minora." In the longer "Boys," a woman, accompanied by her lover, watches male strippers. With great subtlety, and no raised voices, Latiolais shows us a tensely fraying relationship.
"Gut" is the most conventional story here and the only one with humor and a happy ending. It is about an anthropologist who persuades his wife to accompany him to Africa and embark on a monthlong diet of foods chimpanzees eat.
Other stories strain for an impact that misfires. "Tattoo" doesn't manage to bridge the gap between a woman's looking through a window at a man's tattoo and her sudden memory of her father's cruelty. And I'm not sure what the point of "The Legal Case" is. In it a young woman reads a newspaper account of a man's kicking his pregnant ex-wife and killing the fetus. She is horrified that an outdated law does not recognize it as a crime. And so?
But at her best, Latiolais plunges courageously into odd territory, noticing and observing the felt life in precise and often beautiful language.
Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis.