And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe
Reviewed by Eden Royce
Gwendolyn Kiste’s work is always transportive. It takes me there. To that world she’s created within the pages of her story. Whether in an orchard, a lonely apartment, or the fear-ridden minds of a rural community, I’m there with the sights and sounds and emotions her characters experience.
It’s the kind of writing you want to escape to. After a tough day or a disappointing episode of your favorite TV show, you can read one of Kiste’s stories, knowing you’ll be in good, and capable, hands.
One of her abilities—a feat, really—is how she carefully she balances beauty and horror. They are folded over each other, into each other, so that neither element loses its effect in the final combination.
Kiste’s collection of short fiction And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe is exactly the book that tears you in two. You want to devour it immediately, like some sweet confection after weeks of dieting. But it’s also the book you want to hold onto, waiting for that day when you really need the escape. Need to escape from the boss’ antics, from the horrible commute, from whatever gets your back up. The collection you think about as you walk in the door, longing to dive within.
Imaginative, immersive, emotional. These tales provide a quietly lingering horror from a distinctly woman-positive perspective. Blissfully, unapologetically so. These are stories that speak to the experiences and challenges we face when going outside or when we let someone into our homes or our hearts.
Gothic at times, fantastic and surreal at others, these short stories are written with a nod toward the weighty expectation placed upon us, while giving women and girls a choice and a voice within each page. I smiled through this collection. I delight in worlds where ‘witch’ is a compliment, not a curse. We need more of those.
And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe gives us fourteen tales from the edge, the periphery, the outside, that revel in what comes from being different and not succumbing to the norm.
“Something Borrowed, Something Blue”
Mrs. Gardener gives birth to birds. They slice through her skin to reach the outside world, terrifying her husband, her friends, her community. A lovely, yet painful tale of overcoming and self-acceptance.
“10 Things to Know About 10 Questions”
I first read this story in Nightmare Magazine, and it is still as potent now as it was then. There is a survey. Ten questions to determine who will be the next one to disappear. It’s given to children at school, parents discuss it at church. Who will be next? A story of non-conformity and knowing you can never go back to what once was.
“The Clawfoot Requiem”
Savannah slit her wrists in the bathtub. Her sister is determined to keep what she can of her and will fight anyone who tries to pull the plug.
“All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray”
I love the title of this re-imagined fairy tale. Not the sugar-soaked ones. The old kind. Haunting, tragic in its portrayal of womanhood. “He blames witches for everything.” Set in a time where ‘witch’ meant a woman who spoke her mind, or woman who didn’t obey, or woman succeeding without a male.
A girl watches young women eat apples from her father’s orchard. One by one, they fall asleep until men awaken them, then they are carried off to an uncertain future, away from everything they’ve ever known. Soon the girl’s father tells her she has to eat her own apple and she has a decision to make…
“The Man in the Ambry”
As I found out, ‘ambry’ is another word for cupboard or a recess in a wall. With that tidbit, Kiste begins one of my favorite stories in the collection. Sweet, almost innocent in tone and written in the Gothic epistolary style, it spans years in the life of Molly Jane as she moves from hopeful girl to unfulfilled adult. All the while, she keeps writing letters to the Man, searching for a friend, someone to understand her. But is he even real?
“Find Me, Mommy”
Losing a loved one is hard. Losing a child can be devastating. Emma Jo’s mommy mourns so long that something comes back.
“Audrey At Night”
What used to be Audrey comes after midnight, scratching and clawing at the floor and the bedframe, yet Daniel Cooke sleeps through it. Kaylee Cooke doesn’t. She’s pushed by the vision of Audrey to search for answers to these visits. A wonderfully satisfying twist ending.
“The Five-Day Summer Camp”
Madeleine and her younger sister Arabella are sent to a government-run summer camp where harsh-faced men in peacoats oversee each camper’s every move. Spartan lodgings, white tunics, signs demanding smiles and happiness. Amid the camera’s red lights, campers are taught to be good — helped of course with drug-laced food and “treatments” administered via syringe. But it’s only five days, right? What could happen?
After all, only good girls return home.
“Skin Like Honey and Lace”
Perhaps one of the best examples of Kiste’s style of horrific beauty. Genevieve and her kind are drawn to humans. To them our skin is lovely, irresistible, and precious enough to steal. Ideal to adorn themselves with, for the purpose of covering their own rotting flesh.
The body horror of this story is written so tenderly, with such care that it takes time for the full weight of the scene to sink in. Just like the oil Genevieve uses to ease removal of the skin.
“By Now, I’ll Probably Be Gone”
They were once happy. Their relationship was so ideal that after his infidelity, she couldn’t go on without him. But just because she shouldn’t go on, doesn’t mean she’s moved on…
“Through Earth and Sky”
This was another of my favorites in this collection. The plight of two Native women, sisters, trying to exist and preserve themselves and their culture under the oppression of marriage to abusive white men. The sisters are treated like possessions, beaten. The men don’t value them, don’t understand them, don’t listen. You’re lucky to have us, they say. No one else will have you.
Other women of the town don’t listen either. He works, that’s enough.
The wind, however, always listens.
“The Tower Princesses”
A fantastic way story about the burden of societal and familial expectations placed on young girls. It isn’t everyone who gets them, not every girl. But it is only girls who get towers encasing them, protecting and preventing at the same time. The tower princesses are reviled, jeered at, avoided, envied.
Some girls don’t get towers as protection. Somehow the horrors that happen to those girls at the hands of boys are the girls’ fault. Why were you walking out there alone? Didn’t you know? You must have wanted it.
Bittersweet and aching. Deeply true. A story about how none of us are given a safe place in this world. We have to find it. Make it. Protect it.
“And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe”
A fan’s obsession with a troubled movie star, dead for almost fifty years, creates a path for her take the universe by storm.
“The Lazarus Bride”
I don’t want to say too much about the final story as it is the ideal way to end this collection. It resonates, it lingers, it reveals long after you’ve closed the book. What I will say is: You can’t save a person. In the end, they have to save themselves.