Stories of Strangeness in Reality: A Review of Mannequin and Wife by Hannah Robinson

If you’re looking to read a collection of short stories that explores life’s oddities and altered realities, Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin and Wife is for you. The 2020 publication from Louisiana State University Press is a collection of thought-provoking tales, from dueling executives and backwards-aging children, to mystical forest-creatures and predestined DNA. It is the debut collection of stories from Fawkes, who has been published in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Joyland, and The Rumpus, among others. She recently won the 2019 Pinch Award in Fiction, and the 2019 John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize from Harpur Palate. She currently resides in Little Rock, Arkansas. Read her essay, "Not A Love Story," in Issue 9 of Miracle Monocle.

Fawkes has the ability to create stories that are grounded in our day to day lives, yet filled with bizarre and unusual details that feel all too real to deem implausible. Throughout the book, Fawkes instills a dreamy and offbeat tone that feels extraordinary in its exploration of normalcy. Each story is unique and vastly different than the one that comes before it, and the entire collection flourishes off Fawkes’ ability to create character-driven plots—no matter how unconventional these characters may be. She brings humanity to even the most un-relatable characters, even in pieces spanning less than two pages. Personal favorites include “Come Back, Rita,” “Iphigenia in Baltimore,” “Possible Wildlife in Road,” “Victoria,” and “Double Helix.”

“Come Back, Rita” is Fawkes’s retelling of Frankenstein, with its own unique twist. We follow a private investigator working for Naomie, whose mad scientist husband has gone missing. Fawkes uses her own version of this classic tale to explore human creation through the idea of connection, and how “people make each other… couples make each other.” The story is an ode to love and loss, monsters born and created, and the sacrifices life both asks and forces you to take.

“Iphigenia in Baltimore” is the heartbreaking, powerful tale of Beatrice, a woman whose superhuman strength holds her from the intimate and personal relationships she craves. She resorts to writing erotica and accepting her alienation, when she is suddenly thrown into an action that seals her fate and clarifies/reveals her life’s meaning. It’s a beautiful story of sacrifice and otherworldliness against the backdrop of Baltimore.

“Possible Wildlife in Road” is the odd and provoking story of Caleb, a boy born from his mother’s humanness, and his father’s mystical creation. The story takes on the challenging task of exploring violation through the eyes of the victim, the onlooker, and the perpetrator. It asks, can love emerge from degradation?

“Victoria” is a dual-telling of murder and its rippling effects. The piece opens with Darryl, a taxidermist with a dreadful background, whose violent urges not only destroy his family, but the frame story’s protagonist, Francine. She moves her father and daughter into the old home of the now-infamous Darryl Chase Jr., and must now face the history that it inflicts upon her own family.

“Double Helix” is the story of Mitch and Eleanor, and their cliché student-teacher relationship; except, Fawkes takes this cliché and turns it into a dark and stormy relationship, that results in loss and curious requited love. Their journey keeps the reader questioning loyalty, morality, and biology, and the possibility “that our genes might encode even those things that seem like random, accidental, unpredictable events.”

No matter what story you deem your favorite in Jen Fawkes’s collection, each of her odd and experimental stories are sure to push the boundaries of your understanding of reality and existence, while exploring the confines of plausibility. Fawkes’s artistry shines throughout the collection, and showcases her ability to be bold and fearless in a timeless manner. Mannequin and Wife is the book to pick up when you’re wanting an outlandish experience, and a read that expands the imagination beyond the mundane aspects of life.

Make the end of 2020 better than the beginning, and pick up a copy of Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin and Wife. Paperback copies are available for $24.95 through LSU Press, Bookshop, Book Depository, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. You can also find eBook availability through select retailers.

HANNAH ROBINSON is a managing fiction editor of Miracle Monocle.