BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Beautiful Sorrows has no theme other than to showcase the range and skill of Mercedes M. Yardley. Her debut collection presents a rich assortment of short stories, flash fiction and micro fiction set in worlds that both resemble our own and remind of forgotten fairy tales left to their own devices.
PROS: Beautiful language that pairs with imaginative storylines; surreal, dream-like events; a general sense of unconventionality that works in favor of the narratives; emotionally charged scenes and strong characterization.
CONS: The flash and micro fiction pieces pale in comparison to the longer offerings, which make for an uneven reading experience
BOTTOM LINE: It’s a great debut. Beautiful Sorrows is subtle in some places, heartbreaking in others. Both surreal and painfully relatable in its familiarity. Mercedes M. Yardley sounds like no writer I’ve read until now and there’s a high chance she sounds like no one other than herself. That’s something to look forward to experiencing.
Beautiful Sorrows is a peculiar collection by a peculiar author with a peculiar voice and even more peculiar stories. That’s the best introduction I can manage and be concise as to what you can expect reading. This debut collection falls on the slimmer side, peppered with micro and flash fiction pieces serving as punctuation to the greater emotional narrative within Beautiful Sorrows. In his introduction, P. Gardner Goldsmith compares Yardley to a siren and rightfully so, but instead songs that fuel lust, Yardley sings songs to make hearts break.
Her fiction cuts deep at places. It’s akin to reading the diary of someone you love to discover a secret so dark and painful it introduces you to a darkness deeper than what you have known. For all her light whimsy and surrealism, which turn some of her stories into proto-fairy tales, lean and raw, Yardley roots her fiction in humanity and its fragility. Not unlike the Australian horror master, Kaaron Warren, Yardley manages to expertly warp the purest of human traits, feelings and emotions into a womb for pain.
In “The ABCs of Murder”, death — or rather the state of un-death — tests the limits of friendship in a series of painful sessions where a teen boy tries to put his best friend’s ghost to rest in a way that sticks. There’s vulnerability in that depiction of adolescent devotion to each other and the innocent violence born out of necessity. But perhaps more cruel still is what love makes people do in Yardley’s world with the painfully beautiful “Luna E Volk” which blends violent delusion with burning desire culminating in a harrowing conclusion…or the slow, torturous relationship drawn out in “Big Man Ben” – perhaps the longest and saddest story in the collection because it’s rooted more in reality than in the fantastical.
The reason why these stories hit hard is because Yardley writes about you and me, your friend and coworker – ordinary people set on their own trajectory to collide with disaster. Yardley writes of people and their vulnerability. You won’t find heroes or villains here, no traditional arcs for protagonists to follow to a convenient resolution tied with a pretty bow. Even the boy in “The Boy Who Hangs the Stars” and the girl who collects sorrows in “The Container of Sorrows” – all fantastical in their nature – do not get a happily-ever-after in the traditional sense you’re used to. The absence of such finality makes you feel as though you’re a voyeur, privy only to a moment, a glimpse behind the curtains, behind the magic.
Much of the emotional impact comes from the author’s style. Her writing is stripped down. Her sentences are notes – short and sharp, and they do what they need to, nothing more, nothing less. In the hands of someone less capable, this style would brush me raw with its monotony, but Yardley proves there’s beauty in simple melodies. Her haunting brevity lends itself to bending the laws of reality, so the reader enters a dreamlike logic where stars need to be put on the sky, the universe plots the murder of an inconsequential man, death wants a roommate and houses have tiger sharks as pets. It’s why stories like “Wings” about a winged boy who falls in love, “Pixies Don’t Get Names” about the short lifecycle of pixies, and “Untied” about an attempted suicide and anthropomorphic tie work so well. They succeed in breaching reality to their own distinct ends.
However, Beautiful Sorrows is not without its flaws. You’ll notice there are 27 stories, most of which fall on the really short side and it’s their brevity that acts against them. At best they are somewhat forgettable, not because of lack of skill, but because they’re overpowered by the longer and stronger stories in the collection. They’re more of a phantom of story, which don’t have the space to create an impact. “Ava”, “Extraordinary Beast”, “Flat, Flat World” and “Show Your Bones” are examples of this.
Nevertheless, Beautiful Sorrows brims with memorable tales and I believe is a must-read. Be sure to keep an eye out for Mercedes M. Yardley.