Bender’s uneven collection of quirky short stories

Willful Creatures
Aimee Bender
Windmill, €11.45;Kindle, £5.51

American writer Aimee Bender has made her name for her weird, but wonderful writing.

She’s best known for her second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, about Rose, a girl who can taste the feelings and mood of the people who cook her food.

The girl’s brother, in that book, was even weirder. By the end, he succeeds in his lifetime’s aim, and is subsumed into his favourite chair. Strange indeed. Yet the reader becomes so consumed by Bender’s story, so fond of her characters, and so used to her quirkiness, that they can take it all quite in their stride. I loved the book, and the character of Rose has lingered in my mind.

So I was hugely excited when Willful Creatures; her second collection of short stories, arrived in the post. I found it, though, a very uneven collection. Although slim, it’s divided into three parts, and is a mix of morality tale, studies of eccentrics, and extreme magical realism.

The collection opens with a tale of 10 men told by 10 doctors that they’ve two weeks left to live. Some have been misdiagnosed. The second, ‘The End of the Line’ is about a bored man who buys himself a little man in a cage from a pet store. Soon irritated by his ‘pet,’ he starts to sedate, and then to torture him. Then, getting to know him better, his overwhelming emotion is jealousy for the life the little man had before he was caught.

I preferred the stories that didn’t use such tricks. Stories like ‘Off.’ This is about a girl who, attending a party, decides she will kiss three men there; one dark, one fair, and one with red hair. In the course of achieving this, she goes against her own desire. By the end of the story, when she has kissed two men whom she knows, and, to lure a third, has shut herself in a wardrobe, where she’s hiding everybody’s coats, we have a real sense of her complicated character.

‘Debbieland’ was another story that shone. A teenage bully never finds solace in life. The vicious mindlessness of her attacks are what is striking here. Meeting her victim in later life, it turns our she’s had her name wrong all those years.

I loved ‘Jinx,’ too. Centring on teenage best friends, it showed the randomness of such alliances. Separated during a shopping trip, neither wanting to ask the other where they’d got to, the relationship simply dies.

Then there’s ‘I will pick out your ribs, (from my teeth,)’ about a man who spends his life in an emergency room, because of his girlfriend’s constant efforts to top herself. All these stories are full of insight, as well as clever writing.

Part three was disappointing. The stories here took magical realism to the limits. We had potatoes growing into children; a batch of babies born as glass and paper, and a boy born with keys for hands. Whilst certainly imaginative, there just wasn’t the space to make these interesting or worthwhile. I lost patience. I’m not going to give up on Bender. But in future, I’m going to stick to the novels. The longer form allows her to show her talent to the full.


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