THE ELIZABETH STORIES By Isabel Huggan Viking. 184 pp. $15.95
IF, AS Flannery O'Connor once wrote, the best short stories resist paraphrase, then Isabel Huggan's The Elizabeth Stories clearly qualify. All eight of these vibrant, provocative stories undulate with ambiguity. Sprawling beyond their margins, they exalt mystery over explanation. Expect to be haunted by these stories not for what they solve but for what they confound.
"Sorrows of the Flesh" is a modern masterpiece, as fine a story of sexual awakening and delusion as I've ever read. But almost every story in the collection is as shapely and complex. These are stories about human desire and fallibility, the excruciating impotence of childhood, the glib tyranny of parents that embitters the hearts of children. Set in the late '50s and early '60s, the stories portray the formative years of a small-town Canadian girl, the only child of unyielding parents who mostly regard her with distrust and dismay.
We first meet Elizabeth Kessler as the merciless antagonist in "Celia Behind Me." It seems a daring introduction to a character that the book's dust jacket assures us we will love. Celia, the eponymous victim of Elizabeth's hatred, is a peevish diabetic child greatly pitied by adults and taunted by her schoolmates. " 'You have to be nice to me because I'm going to die,' " Celia tells the children who spurn her. What makes this brief story so remarkable is its unsparing account of scapegoating and the narrator's unapologetic candor about her cruelty.
Early on Isabel Huggan acknowledges the dark and often inexplicable brutalities of childhood. Nostalgia and sentimentality do not find a nesting place within these pages. Elizabeth Kessler is rendered fully human in her ability both to inflict and to suffer pain. If we do not care so much for what she does, we care for what she tries to undo: the riddles of her failures and flaws.
In the poignant, funny story, "Jack of Hearts," Elizabeth is asked to play the part of a boy in her ballet class recital. She feels humiliated, confused, cast into a sexual limbo. When her father offers her no sympathy, she senses an "opening of the heart like the wrenching up of a window. She saw clearly and absolutely how much he had wanted . . . a son. And what he had was a daughter who wasn't even very good at being a girl."
ELIZABETH RARELY seems able to please her parents. Much of her unhappiness arises out of stymied communication with them and others. In the deft and chilling "Into the Green Stillness," Elizabeth and her retarded cousin Grace (to get angry with Grace "would have been like punching mist; there was no resistance in her at all") labor during summer vacation to clear a path in the nearby woods. When circumstances that put me in mind of The Turn of the Screw cause Elizabeth to destroy the path, her cousin is devastated. No explanation Elizabeth can offer Grace will justify the demolition from Grace's perspective. Once again Elizabeth has violated the trust of a loved one for reasons beyond her control.
In "Queen Esther," boiling over with loutish sexuality, Elizabeth betrays the tender friendship offered her by a devout Mennonite housemaid. The writing throughout this story is charged with brilliant contrast. On Esther's ironing day, a day of "cleanliness and order," Elizabeth buries her face in the fresh laundry and inhales the "delicate aroma of virtue."
Enduring the ambiguities of youth is one of the greatest achievements of growing up. In these stories Elizabeth evolves from an awkward, self-conscious child, eager to plunder life's secrets, to a witty, resilient young woman, enlightened by her struggles. A survivor of despair, she seems almost to have outgrown it. If she still has more questions than answers, she remains undefeated by them.
I only wish there had been more stories. Linked stories gain momentum much like a novel, yet on the last page one senses merely a pause rather than a conclusion. I wanted to know more about the incestuous cousins (were they ever found out?), more about Elizabeth's mother's minister friend. I wanted a story that would plumb the relationship between Elizabeth's undemonstrative parents. But this is not complaint. When you find a writer like Isabel Huggan, you simply don't want her to stop.
Marianne Gingher is the author of the novel "Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit." A collection of her stories will be published next year.