The Wrong Heaven, Amy Bonnaffons; Alex Vaillant, narrator (Hachette Audio 9781478999676, $24.98, digital download, 6.25 hr., unabridged) July 2018.
I’m typically drawn to new audiobooks by reading about them. This is, oddly enough, the only instance that I can recall where I picked up an audiobook after hearing a piece of it. In November 2017, the Public Radio International show “This American Life” broadcast an excerpt of Amy Bonnaffons’s short story “Horse,” in which two roommates pursue two very different biological paths: one wants to become a single mother through IVF, and the other wants to become a horse, a newly discovered biological process that only works on women. On the strength on that excerpt, I hoped that there would be enough fantasy and science fiction in this collection to justify including it in this column.
Well, just about. This collection (which actually uses a different narrator, Alex Vaillant, than the two who narrated the radio excerpt, Grace Gummer and Geraldine Hughes) just barely fits within the definition of speculative fiction. In the literary sense, Bonnaffons is a close neighbor of Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg, with Kelly Link perhaps living down the block. “Horse” is really the only science fiction story. Some of the other stories pivot on the magic of wish fulfillment, although it’s not entirely clear whether that fulfillment (talking Jesus and Mary plug-in lawn ornaments delivering discouraging or useless life advice, two carved wooden dolls coming to life, a little girl creating her own version of a younger sister) is real or imagined.
In general, these are stories of yearning, of desires and voids that the women telling the stories can’t quite name. The default deadpan of narrator Alex Vaillant is quite effective in this context: it either reflects the protagonists’ inability to access a deep well of feeling that is quite clearly there or it sets off the inchoate passion that’s being expressed but can’t quite be defined.
I enjoyed these character studies and explorations of emotional landscapes, although there was a certain amount of thematic overlap. “Horse” is still the strongest story, and the book’s just about worth picking up just for that.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
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