Forging an entire short fiction collection around a single theme—and delivering one truly original tale after another—is trickier than it sounds. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of repetition and rhythm, making each tale read like the last one, just with the serial numbers filed off. Jane Campbell’s first book, which she’s publishing in her 80th year, maintains a thorough sense of originality while delivering a stunning range of works on the inner lives of older women. The stories in Cat Brushing cross genres and boundaries, daring the reader to meditate on previously unexplored (or at the very least, rarely explored) perspectives on aging, sexuality, violence and beyond.
In “Susan and Miffy,” a woman develops an unlikely sensual connection with her beautiful caregiver, challenging both of their notions about attraction. In “Lockdown Fantasms,” extreme pandemic isolation leads to a new program that sends government-sponsored spirits into the homes of the “over-seventies” to keep them company. In “Lamia,” a woman returns to the site of an old fling in an effort to recapture something in her own dangerous nature. In “Kindness,” a retired woman in a beachside retirement complex makes a choice that will change not one life, but three. And in the title story, a woman living with her son and his new wife explores the anxieties and uncertainties of existence while grooming her beloved pet.
The baker’s dozen of tales that make up Cat Brushing are all delivered through lean, incisive, witty prose that calls to mind the calculated directness of Ernest Hemingway and the furious expressiveness of Joyce Carol Oates. Campbell’s sentences are solid, imposing, often free of adornment in terms of punctuation, and each one seems carefully crafted to get to the core of a certain emotional truth. Whether she’s writing a first-person or third-person narrative, Campbell’s wisdom, passion and honesty come through, imbuing the collection with an elegant, often lyrical power.
Within these women’s stories of loss, desire, pain and memory, we discover the feeling of holding onto something primal even as the world seems determined to forget that side of us. To capture such complexity in one story is powerful, but for Campbell to do so 13 times makes Cat Brushing one of the most compelling fiction collections you’ll find this year.