REVIEWED BY DAVID S. ATKINSON
I felt a little challenged when I sat down to review After the Gazebo, the newest collection of fiction by Jen Knox. There are a number of strengths I could talk about, such as the characterization and the description. However, how I was going to talk about the narrative structure, the aspect I liked most? Allow me to touch on the former two briefly before taking on the more complex task.
Characters in these stories seem to live, to actually breathe on the page. From “Do Not Pass”:
She laughs aloud at the memory of her father’s face then, how angry he was—he seemed so strong at the time, so outright scary. She knows now exactly how scared he was, how much it stings to worry over family. “I send you out for a simple errand, to take a single package to the post, and you come back here in a truck with a drunk chicken man?” he yelled. Don’t you have sense in your head?”
Details are tangible and solid as well. From “A Whole Toy”:
A skinny girl in a pink skirt looks to me, lavender eyes sparkling, and she winks. She is unafraid. She is alerting me to the fact that they are here, the packs, suited to accommodate their disguises. The man who whisper-growled rushes to grab the man with the gun; two orange tennis shoes leave the floor as a real bullet is released toward the ceiling. Others, dogs in disguise, pile on top of the man. The man with the gun is flattened when the police arrive to shackle and confine him. I imagine him in stripes, hands gripping bars, a cartoon face, and this makes me smile.
Having previously read Knox’s Don’t Tease the Elephants, I expected all that. But the most interesting thing is how the stories unfold, each structured to give clues leading to an ‘aha!’ moment, followed by the emotional impact, as meaning dawns a moment later. It’s a wonderful way to bring stories across, but how can a reviewer illustrate the way an author achieves that kind of mechanic?
The title story exemplifies my challenge as a reviewer. In “After the Gazebo,” the ‘aha,’ and the realization of meaning are marvelously crafted. To demonstrate this in a review, however, I would give away the whole story for I would even need to quote the ending. Suffice it to say that Knox’s intricate structure is integral to her achieved effect.
Luckily, “Getting There” is crafted in a way that allows me to analyze the structure that intrigues me so much without having to reproduce the essence of the story in full.
Here the action begins with Tonya staring:
at the facing orange and black tattoo on her ankle. It was poorly done with too-thick lines, and people often thought it was a bee, not a butterfly. She had made this appointment to get it touched up, but the tattoo artist could only do so much. He warned her that he couldn’t reasonably thin out the lines.
That’s fine,” she said. “So long as you can make it look like a butterfly.”
We next learn that Tonya has a daughter. Tonya worries about her because Tonya’s own life is characterized by always coming close but never quite making it. She’d almost been a model, a writer, but nothing panned out. She’d almost married, but the guy took off when she got pregnant. In the face of all that, what will happen for her daughter? Will she only come close as well? Here’s where it came together for me:
“My daughter is bitter. She is the child—the one that’ll make it,” Tonya said to a room filled with haggard-looking people who, like herself, were detoxing. “I want my daughter to make it to Mexico. I want to buy her a car that will take her there.”
“You make no sense,” a young woman said. The woman’s nails were painted black, and she’d said this not so much to Tonya but toward the floor. Tonya continued to speak, a little louder than before she was interrupted. She looked down at her ankle as she spoke.
All of a sudden, I got it. As detailed in the story, monarch butterflies migrate. Often they don’t make it and die along the way. However, they lay eggs while migrating. The children of those who do not make it continue the journey. The emotional impact of what that means for Tonya hits hard. This illustrates my point without spoiling the magic of “Getting There,” which is a particularly marvelous story.
All the stories in After the Gazebo seem to operate like this in one way or another. Nothing is trumpeted unsubtly, but it also isn’t hidden. Things come out slowly, at the right moment, allowing for separate moments of intellectual realization and emotional impact. As a result, I found myself more engaged with the stories than I perhaps would have been otherwise. It works, and works well.
Each story is consistently strong with compelling characters presented at life-changing moments, and the descriptions are vivid. There is much to enjoy in After the Gazebo, but it’s in the orchestrated structuring of the tales where Knox’s gift as a writer really shines.
David S. Atkinson is the author of Not Quite so Stories (forthcoming from Literary Wanderlust), The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. He spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.