Radium Girls is the debut collection of shorts from Amanda Gowin. That needed saying first off, because as soon as you begin this book, you slowly forget it’s a collection of stories. It becomes more a journey through amazingly crafted lives that are connected by a profound need to be coupled. And I don’t mean “coupled” in a romantic way either, but more in a need to be connected to another person – emotionally, spiritually, sexually, or hopelessly. This not Mills and Boon. There is no place in these pages for Zooey Deschanel acting all cutesy and innocent. This is life laid out in its raw and natural state. In these pages, Gowin has stripped away the skin and flesh of everything we have known and exposed the fetid marrow of life that runs through us all.
“Lies are more plausible in a shadowless world.”
There are 15 stories in total, which for a short story collection doesn’t seem much. But a large chunk of that is spent on the novella, Pink Manatee. This is the jewel in the crown and my favourite in the collection. It tells the story of Bridget, a sort of ACME witch come spiritual guider for many of the patients in a mental institution, where she too is residing and receiving treatment. Bridget buries many things, likes dolls for the woman who lost her child, or poetry for the man with the stammer. These are acts born of hope. Bridget believes that there is no harm with offering hope, or herself, it makes someone’s life more bearable. And it’s this self-sacrifice that extends beyond the perimeter walls of the institution to Eddie, her ex-room mate’s brother. Eddie likes to pick Bridget up on day release in his El Camino and drive into the suburban belly of the underworld to do some dodgy deals. Eddie has a girlfriend. Eddie is bad. But beholden by her own beliefs, this moment of freedom and adventure is the only consent Bridget needs to be the accomplice, and bed-partner. When Eddie needs to sell some stolen radios and pulls Bridget along for the ride, she meets a fence called Max, part Street Car Brando and part David in The Lost Boys. If you want love, then here it is, but be warned, this not conventional. All schematics, blueprints and templates have been ripped up. And this is where Gowin shines. Max and Bridget’s relationship is damaged, desperate, animal and yet perfect in construction. Blistering and slick dialogue pierces through the two, and that vulnerable edge we all have is the thread that pulls this all together. The detail that Gowin puts into these scenes is nothing sort of inspiring. As a writer, I felt myself sweating, and contracting, and wishing for one moment I could see the world and all its little flaws through Gowin’s eyes.
“Looking into his palm is reading MAD magazine – a gorgeous combination of lies, satire, and flexible half-truths; on every whorl of sandpaper callous Eddie is etched.”
But the real genius of Pink Manatee is the way Gowin has balanced that torrid and unpredictable world beyond the institution with the procedural, controlled, and at times, more desperate world within. Beautifully flawed characters revolve around Bridget, and it’s sometimes within these moments you find true sadness. Amy, Gerald, Charlotte, these are real people. These stories exists. And what cleaves is not the want for the cracks to heal in the lives of all these people, but for you to crawl down each to see how deep they go. There are some really tender and magical moments within the institution that offset the dark, sweltering intensity of the outside world. Here we see the desperation of the mind played out, and the family union of broken characters.
Pink Manatee could easily have been released as a book, but the brood spawned by Gowin’s mind serve as reminders there is much more from Gowin in the future. The shorter pieces are dream-like in construction, some more abstract, some more poetic in design. There are zombies, twins, addicts, Pomeranians, the moon, clocks and all the tiny pieces of life we overlook. Gowin is the tornado, lifting the flotsam of society and spinning it around and around until it lands just South of Kansas where magic and colour is just beyond their reach. There is no yellow brick road in Gowin’s world, only the brittle shards of broken dreams to walk upon. It’s a sad, and at times, a difficult journey to undertake, but I can promise you this, by the end you’ll want to live every step over and over again.