Barrelhouse Reviews

Barrelhouse Reviews: A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell

Review by Ann Davis-Rowe


Dzanc Books
July 16, 2019
Paperback / 200 pp / $16.95

Readers are easily swept away by an epic narrative with characters they truly get to know, their histories and thought processes completely laid out over 500 pages. But in A Girl Goes into the Forest, Peg Alford Pursell creates characters equally complex and real, whole worlds—sometimes in less than a page. This 240-page book contains 78 stories. It is altogether a different sort of feat from epic storytelling for an author to communicate all she wants to say in such a limited fashion and to trust that the reader will follow with her. 

One method Pursell uses to guide the reader through her forest is to group the stories into sections, each section with a dramatic and haunting title that poses its own questions. The first is “How Far She Has Come in the Wide World Since She Started Out in Her Naked Feet,” and the majority of the stories in it deal with the struggles of mother/daughter relationships. 

In “Smoke, Must, Dust,” the maternal narrator states of her daughter that “she and I were always in opposition, barely managing to tamp down the conflict when others neared.” In “A Man with Horses,” the mother acknowledges conflict with her daughter more obliquely, her daughter “who had always seemed, from the start, too clever to choose comfort.” The mother has great hope for the future—“I was contented, even triumphant” as her daughter prepares to go away to college, saying, “but somehow we’d made it through, and she was on the verge of making her own way in the world. I imagined talking deeply in the days to come, learning what made her feel empty, what made her feel full.”

Different mothers, different daughters, same struggle. Both mothers are left by their daughters, one as expected, one as a surprise. Despite their different relationships with their daughters, the mothers are similarly resigned to the future. The story reflects back to narration in “Old Church by the Sea,” the first story in this section: “I always think I’ll circle around to the exact explanation for what went wrong. Having and wanting at the same time—that’s what it was to carry my daughter inside me.”

The last two stories of this section are narrated by women whose romantic relationships are as fraught as mother-daughter ones. In “Astronomy at Desert Springs,” a woman’s lack of warm clothing under the cold night sky is a metaphor for a coldness that has crept into her marriage. “She thought she had [dressed warmly], but the clothing (long sleeves, down-filled vest) wasn’t enough, like so many things lately.” 

And in the story that closes this section, “Unknown Animals,” a woman ruminates on how her partner’s face—and perhaps her own, as well—has changed. “Only momentary beauty existed, an instant of respite with the sole purpose of demonstrating its elusiveness.” In one of the more direct moments of the entire collection, the narrator says that “Love was like rainfall, either softening the ground or washing it away.”

Two particularly successful stories are both in the “She Only Dabbled in Magic to Amuse Herself” section. One tells of a cake that does not appreciate being in a story that gives it “consciousness without agency.” The cake feels bad for the woman who will soon come out to find a squirrel has gotten into her tomato plant. And despite the story’s title being “Under the Accumulating Sunlight,” the cake feels its icing melt, not from the sun, but from empathy with the to-be-disappointed woman. Meanwhile, we are told that the squirrel “just wants what it wants” as it eyes the pink icing. How rude for the creature with no deeper thought to be able to do what it likes, whereas the cake has all the feelings but none of the power. 

The story that immediately follows echoes the idea of lack of agency, of a life where things happen to one instead of by one, and not just through its title, “Gilded Cage.” The main character “was believed to be a witch because of her hunched back” and also “because she was alone and no one had ever been inside her cottage at the edge of the forest and no one knew what she did there.” The woman, nicknamed Birdie by her father many years ago, keeps canaries; as she keeps them in their cage, she is kept in hers by her disability and solitary nature. But her life wasn’t always solitary. The story is less than three pages long, but it describes her rough-but-gentle father, her faithless lover, and the devoted woman who helped the family keep house. It also offers observations about human nature—how once children learned to tie their shoes before kindergarten, but perhaps those parents who put their kids in Velcro are the same ones who don’t care about cursive; how death can be kind, keeping people from seeing pain come to those they love. 

Most of the stories in this book have female protagonists, and while they are all flawed, Pursell treats them with more care—as in the mothers who lost their daughters—than the fewer male protagonists. In “Our Losses” and  “A House on the Market,” the men realize the errors they have made in their relationships, but do nothing to fix the issue. In “You Can Do Anything,” a man thinks he realizes where he went wrong and how he can fix it, but certain clues throughout, such as the way he imposes his worldview onto others—he is very proud to ask how much his financial clients are “spending” on entertainment when he really means “wasting”—that he is projecting. In “Love Carnival,” a husband is so focused what his wife does that he doesn’t like, he can’t appreciate what she is doing to work on their relationship. Rather than finding pleasure in his wife trying to seduce him, “she used her sex appeal to unfair advantage…once again, he hadn’t even finished what he’d had to say!”

Pursell’s economy of words often left me wanting more. This isn’t a criticism; instead, I feel it’s the key to this collection’s magic. I am normally a very fast reader, but I had to take a lot of time to pause and process. I often felt like I wasn’t smart enough to fully comprehend what I had just read, much less create a summary for you, the review reader.

And while I was, admittedly, sometimes frustrated, I was more often fascinated. Especially as rereading brought emphasis to new words, often suddenly unlocking a passage I struggled with. One such story was “Baby Bird.” This story begins with a sentence fragment and a question painting a grim picture—“Gray sheets, grime, chill of metal. Smell of ancient burned toast. What’s a home anyway?”—then moves on to the equally distressing picture of a nest fallen to the ground, empty, but with “the darkish down of the absent bird” still remaining. And then a young girl appears, alone, improperly dressed for the weather, and bleeding. When I first read this story, I could only focus on the girl, leaving bloody footprints as she traveled to and from a dismal house. Only upon rereading did it dawn on me that the title was “Baby Bird” and I was able to fully appreciate the connection between the girl and the missing bird. The story ends: “Where is the bird? Where did she go?”

Many of the characters in this book have no name. This may lead the reader to wonder if they appear in multiple stories. Are we reading about the same person in a different point in their life? Or the same event from another point of view? The first two stories in section six, “He Tried to Say His Prayers But All He Could Remember Were His Multiplication Tables” are especially evocative in this manner. “One Early Summer Morning” begins with a daughter mentioning her father as her mother lies dying, and “Unraveled” is about a man unable to put away the sweater of a woman no longer with him. Is this the same man from the first story, and the mother the owner of the sweater? Of course, Pursell doesn’t say the woman in “Unraveled” has died, just that she was recently there and isn’t now. 

When I got past the need to figure it all out, to create a cohesive plotline from these very different fragments, I saw that the through-line of A Girl Goes into the Forest is basic human longing. Even if it’s just a longing to know more. After all, in every fairytale we’ve ever been told, from Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by a cruel stepmother, to Beauty, trying to save her father, a girl never goes into the forest because she is perfectly content with life. 

Ann Davis-Rowe has been a voracious reader from a very young age and holds a Masters degree in Library Science. She's also a secretary, actress, home cook, and co-guardian to the snuggliest puppies around.

Barrelhouse Reviews: Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton

Review by Eric Nguyen

Publisher: Fiction Collective 2 (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2019)
Price: $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-57366-069-3

The world can be a horrible place. Rivers can dry up. Friends can disappear. A plant can outgrow its pot and wreak havoc. It’s all the same in the worlds of Evelyn Hampton’s surreal collection, Famous Children and Famished Adults, which won Fiction Collective 2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovation Prize. That it was selected for the prize by Noy Holland is apt.

Holland, known for her satisfyingly bizarre and challenging stories, once wrote that the writers she’s “hungriest to read sacrifice ease and fluency,” that they “forego the temptation to add, resist the lure of convention, are wary of the strength of the will; [and] they believe in affect, the work the word does on the body.” Hampton's work fits this bill. She uses strange phrasing and surprising images ("almonds the color of skin, the boy's"), often in speculative settings that disorient readers. If, in a Noy Holland story, you are running through a maze led by a guide running paces ahead of you, in a Hampton story, the light is off as you stumble through an unrecognizable, fantastical territory. 

The opening story, “Fishmaker,” pushes the reader into such a place with its unsettling first sentence: “Then I made fish.” The narrator goes on to describe how they “make fish” built from “windshield wiper fluid caps,” “dry fish-eye lenses,” and “a pinch of white pepper.” The world of “Fishmaker” is populated with familiar things: the bank of a river, a small den, a “little cabin on the beach” named Beachcombers Paradise (“the owners hadn’t made the S possessive”). Yet this world is not quite right. The nameless narrator is not human in the way we know it. “I am old,” they say, “I keep my skin in a zipped bag in the refrigerator.” Meanwhile, a tomcat becomes a female cat, which becomes a woman, wearing a captain’s vest commandeering a ship called Deliverance. 

Other stories follow similar surreal logic. A filmmaker encounters a mysterious door attached to nothing in “From Documentary Filmmaker Jurgen Grossbinger’s Journal.” The protagonist of “At the Center of the Wasp” returns to an island made of “shit and rot” to bury a perfumer. The coma in “I Carried My Coma” is something that can picked up from the ground and placed in a hand: “It was white and fuzzy and seamed, about to hatch.” And in “Since the Cats All Vanished,” the cats, well, vanish. 

Throughout the collection, Hampton remains confident in her world-building, however weird her worlds become. What she builds are worlds gone horribly wrong: climate change and rapid urbanization propel many of these stories. “Fishmaker,” for instance, starts off in a polluted river but the setting soon changes: the river dries up, forcing the narrator to flee. In “Rico,” there’s “a violent coup that had been preparing itself for months.” 

The more unsettling stories are the ones in which the apocalypse is quiet, anxious, menacing. “The End of History” features a writer buried in a cloud of content, a social media stream come to life:

As long as she has a mind, and senses connected to it, she will be unable to stop taking in the sights, sounds, feelings, odors, and flavors of her surroundings, and from these sensations her mind will be unable to stop inventing stories and ideas that occur to her one after the next, often so quickly that she has not finished making sense of one before the next one comes, then the next…

In “Air,” Hampton’s language loops around itself in long paragraphs to create a claustrophobic sensation as its protagonist plans to kill their houseplant, which is growing too big for its pot. “You reach a point and think, There’s no going back from here,” the story begins, only to end in, if not the exact same place, in a similar mind space of paranoia. The writing here is acrobatic, redundant, frustrating—a specific kind of verbal disorientation that has its own pleasure.

Ironically, Hampton distrusts words. “At the same time that I stake almost everything on language,” she says in an interview with Jared Daniel Fagen, “I also think that language is always going to be inadequate—language, being entirely conceptual, can’t touch what’s outside of concepts.” And this is partly true in her stories. Hampton’s stories investigate ideas and feelings, but never get to them directly. Instead of looking something in the face, we look at its ghost, which is sometimes more affecting than seeing its corpse. In “Cell Body,” a couple copes with one partner’s likely fatal illness. The narrator never specifies the illness and seems to almost refuse to acknowledge it. In one scene, the narrator willfully ignores the doctor: “While she talked to me,” says the narrator, “I looked out to the water because that was the biggest thing I could see; I wanted the water to cancel out something.” 

In these stories for the 21st century, full of horror and danger, where “we who live here rarely know our own motives until much too late, after our actions have had time to acquire a dire direction and shape,” Hampton asks us to do a specific kind of looking—not at the thing itself but at something else: the shadow it makes, the outline of an aura, the space between. As if to say that to survive whatever comes our way, we must be prepared to act differently: see differently, feel differently. Meaningful experimental writing needs to be more than writerly play. It needs to move beyond itself and its words. Evelyn Hampton does precisely that in these astonishingly weird stories.

Eric Nguyen is a writer based in Washington, DC.

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Tradition by Jericho Brown

Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey


Copper Canyon Press, 2019
Softcover, $17.00
ISBN: 978-1556594861

Jericho Brown’s third book, The Tradition, is his most powerful, and his most technically accomplished, yet. Brown attempts to interrogate mythology, the news cycle, police shootings, racism, and the vulnerability of his body in this stunning collection. If Brown’s first book, Please, was a poetry narrative of a boy growing up among his family, his faith, and his history—and if The New Testament was a further examination of art, race, and faith—The Tradition is more complex. Grittier, more nuanced, more self-aware, wearier of the racism and violence around him, more aware of mortality and illness. The speakers of these poems have been betrayed: by the gods, by their own bodies, by their country, by their fellow humans, by the tradition they find themselves in. These poems are bitter, mature, sometimes funny reflections on our culture. They feel important without being ponderous, personal without being petty.

The collection introduces a new form of Brown’s making, the “Duplex,” a sonnet-like series of couplets that includes repetition and, here, is used to devastating effect. In an interview with Michael Dumanis, Brown explained how he came up with the form:

Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms? I was looking at sonnets, looking at ghazals. I got really interested in ghazals when writing my second book. In ghazals, you take couplets that are completely disparate, then juxtapose those couplets so that some kind of magic happens because of the juxtapositions. So I was like, “Oh, if I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.

The first Duplex appears on page 18: “Memory makes demands darker than my own:/ My last love drove a burgundy car…” and the last one, “Duplex: Cento” echoes lines from it (as well as other Duplex poems in the book): “My last love drove a burgundy car,/ Color of a rash, a symptom of sickness…” and ends the book with “Steadfast and awful, my tall father/ Was my first love. He drove a burgundy car.”

Along with this innovation, Brown’s poems still hum with their trademark lyricism – song lyrics and Bible verses and poetry verses show up in all of Brown’s books. His persona poems in this book, compared to the previous two, are a little more worn, a little less triumphant. The subjects of slavery and rape come up repeatedly in the poems throughout the book, which opens with a poem about a boy raped by the gods, “Ganymede”:

When we look at the myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you?

The poet reiterates this question in several other poems. Brown makes use of mythology, but also writes of racism in light of current events. “Ganymede” ends: “The people of my country believe/ We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.”

In “Bullet Points” he writes about police shootings: “I will not shoot myself/ In the head…I promise if you hear/ Of me dead anywhere near/ A cop, then that cop killed me.” The reader cannot ignore the steady refrain of violence in this book, violence particularly against the bodies of people of color. Brown references blackness and darkness throughout the book as both his metaphors and his realities.

One of the most successful poems in the book is the self-conscious “Dark,” where he claims to be sick of himself, or perhaps he imagines his reader is sick of him. I wish I could quote the whole poem, because the sounds and the humor are incredible, almost like a new “Lovesong for J. Alfred Prufrock,” where self-pity and humor become an armor, a kind of beauty.

I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books. Sick of you…
Consumed with a single
Diagnosis of health. I’m sick
Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new…
Everyone you love is
As dark, or at least as black.

The Tradition is riveting and rewarding, and although I have been a fan of all of Jericho Brown’s books, this might be the most moving and the most stark. Yet he has not failed to maintain a romantic, hopeful glimmer throughout the book, as in yet another Duplex poem:

I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse…

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good…

In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.

A poet who works with a gift for lyric language to speak to pain, relationships, politics, and the flaws of our community and our bodies, Jericho Brown creates in The Tradition a new kind of song, a new kind of lament, for a country and a self. He’s a poet who sets out to create a space for himself inside the Tradition, and he succeeds.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6.

Barrelhouse Reviews: dark // thing by Ashley M. Jones

Review by Cecilia Savala


Pleiades Press
82 pp

Ashley M. Jones’s newest poetry collection, dark // thing, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry, emphasizes the strength in “Otherness” while refusing to be set aside.  Mostly set in Jones’s home state of Alabama, the poetry in the collection cannot be constrained. Jones does not color inside the lines but instead straddles them, stretches them, and even redefines them with her expert use of language, sound, and form. Between speaking for and through Otherness, her poetry won’t allow the reader to ignore the inhumanity of being Othered. 

Jones’s cadence and use of sound lull her readers into a false sense of security while her capacity with form and manipulation of the space on the page shake the reader’s sense of the familiar. She takes hold of slurs; she takes off on a motorcycle, vicariously.  Without waiting for anyone to give her the floor, she claims her space, both on the page and off. She exhibits the courage to take on forms, molding them to her purposes, as in “Sunken Place Sestina,” where the ends of her lines liken “hall” to “haul” and she slant-rhymes “shall,” “all” and “enthrall.” Her sestinas are especially powerful.  In “Water,” which is an almost-sestina, and in “When You Tell Me I’d Be Prettier With Straight Hair,” Jones’s voice shines through her control. She uses variations of her first stanza’s final words to gently sculpt her lines like pottery in her hands. 

dark // thing marries the familiar with the experimental, pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable and, as a result, asking the reader to explore a perspective different from his or her own.  Via consistently heavy religious references and, for example, threads of conversation between the speakers and Harriet Tubman, Jones has created a landscape in which it is impossible to pretend all is well. 

In “Recitation,” a young girl is Othered from her peers at the recital of the title because she is a person of color in a gifted classroom.  This poem allows the reader to step into the shoes of the girl and feel the solitude when no one around is enough like you: “I wonder, each day, how it feels to breathe like the other children, like the pretty girls.”  Jones puts the loneliness in the reader’s face, and forces upon her the discomfort of feeling different. Similarly, in “When You Tell Me I’d Be Prettier With Straight Hair,” the speaker’s hair is what sets her apart from the Black men she encounters.  “men // all their hair costs is a biweekly haircut / twenty bucks and side of pride for Rogaine Hair Club for Men.”  

Jones directs our attention to the fact that we have many things in common as well. Pop culture abounds in dark // thing.  “Sunken Place Sestina” references Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and claims “even a brother / can appreciate Harry Potter.” The references run the gamut from Voldemort to The Jetsons, and include A Different World and Tony! Toni! Toné!.  

The collection unites the reader with not just the speaker, but with a community of Others.  Jones has managed to draw distinctions as well as create unity, putting Black and white men and women together in a room, eating fancy cheese and listening to nineties pop music, while at the same time illuminating barriers between them, in order to show the drastic contrast felt daily when part of a culture that’s been Othered. Like the poem “Antiquing,” dark // thing is a trunkful of observations that stem from finding a single broken toy.  

Cecilia Savala is a student at the University of Central Missouri, where she is majoring in English Education and is the Editor in Chief of Arcade Magazine. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Underground Art and Literary Journal, and Mangrove Journal, among others. Cecilia was recently selected as the Honorable Mention for the Assembly for Teachers of English Grammar's 2019 Future Teacher Award.

Barrelhouse Reviews: China Dream by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Review by Katie Smith


Counterpoint Press
Release date: May 7, 2019
Hardcover | 5.5 x 8.25, 176 pages
ISBN 9781640092402

“In evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed,” writes Ma Jian in the forward to China Dream, a relentless and absurd satire of modern Chinese politics and society. The oppressor in this case is China’s President Xi Jinping, whose “China Dream of national rejuvenation” promises even greater wealth if China remains under communist rule. The dream is binary: the collective dream to restore China to its former glory, and the individual dreams of the country’s people, which must always come second. As Ma Jian continues, “China’s tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people’s lives: They have always sought to enter people’s brains and remold them from the inside.” It was, he cites, Chinese Communists who first coined the term “brainwashing” in the 1950s.

Ma throws a glass of cold water on the collectively dreaming Chinese society in this novel of dichotomies. China Dream opens as its protagonist, Ma Daode, is named director of the newly created China Dream Bureau, tasked with replacing individuals’ dreams with President Jinping’s vision through a yet-to-be-designed China Dream Device. He’s a company man with more secrets than he has gold bars hidden away at home: He accepts bribes, has a dozen mistresses at any given time and, worst of all, cannot stop dreaming. 

In seven misty vignettes, readers learn of Director Ma’s upbringing during the Cultural Revolution, what Ma Jian calls a “decade of mob violence, chaos and stagnation.” Memories of fallen friends, fights to the death between teenage factions, and his parents—whom he denounced as class criminals—break jarringly into his daily life. After bizarrely talking about the Cultural Revolution during a very public anniversary ceremony in honor of countless elderly lovebirds, he’s suspended from the China Dream Bureau.

“I thought my troubles were all behind me,” Director Ma says as he begs a renowned healer for help. “But in the last few months, forgotten episodes from my youth keep jumping back into my mind, disturbing me so much that my job is now under threat. When I open my mouth, I start sprouting words I said when I was sixteen, and past events unfold before my eyes as though they are happening right now.”

Ma Jian’s brutal political discourse would be nothing without the power and creativity he wields as a writer. His level of detail is damning. “He leans back into his chair and the cool breeze from the air conditioner wafts up to his shoulders, lifting the hairs at the back of his toupee,” he writes with particular relish of one corrupt and complicit bureaucrat. Ma is no kinder to our protagonist, who’s introduced in the novel’s first page as “dozing in his swivel chair, his shoulders hunched over and his pot belly compressed into large rolls of fat.”

Director Ma, famous for his aphorisms, juggles so many lies that he can’t keep straight which turns of phrase he’s penned, and which are from a chain email. He has so many mistresses that he often can’t work out which woman is the author of the saucy texts he receives at work. He is clearly not a good guy, and readers aren’t supposed to like him. But we are definitely supposed to understand him, to know that he is trying to survive in a system that is pressure-cooking the individualism out of him. 

When he finally breaks in the novel’s final section, Director Ma wanders back to his hometown, where he experienced much of the Cultural Revolution. The past and present have become so nebulous and confusing that he dons a cardboard sign with his name and title as an anchor. Desperate for the memories to stop and his life to go back to normal, he climbs to the top of the Drum Tower in Ziyang and downs a flask of Old Lady’s Dream Broth, said to be what the dead drink to forget their past lives in order to be reborn, before jumping.

“His memories have already vanished and his mind is completely clear,” Ma Jian writes. “He is certain that this heavenly scene unfolding before him is the China Dream of President Zi Jinping.”

For Director Ma, the collective China Dream was no match for his soul, his individual will and lived experience. And neither was it for Ma Jian—though the government has certainly tried. All of his works are banned in China, and the author lives in exile in London. 

We are now in a state of turmoil, in a state of flux, where there is a loss of faith in all leaders, where truth is under threat,” Ma said in an April interview with TIME. “I hope that this book can show that is vital that individuals never give up asking questions. If you stop reflecting on the past, if you don’t question what is fed to you, if you don’t question the motives of the people who are leading you, we will all share a common fate, and that is that we will all be controlled by people that are more stupid and evil and than us.”

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer and immigration paralegal. Find her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics.