They brought her a body. They brought Glorette in and laid her on a Marie-Claire’s couch. Like it was Louisiana, when she was a child and their neighbor Michel got thrown from the mule and kicked in the head and they brought him to Auntie Viola’s house and she told Marie-Claire, Sit here with me, bebe, so I don’t lonely while he don’t left alone.
I was pretty angry with One Story when I read the author Q & A with Susan Straight and found out this is a novel excerpt, not a short story.
But I got over it. I had to; it’s a powerful excerpt. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and call it part of a novel-in-stories.
It’s about a tangle of extended family, originally from Louisiana, now in California. I can’t quite figure out when the present of the story is – recent, at any rate – but main character Marie-Claire is an old woman whose job it is to cleanse niece Glorette’s dead body while husband Enrique makes the coffin and hunts down Glorette’s murderer.
The piece is an extraordinary juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness. In one paragraph, we’re learning about the two men Enrique has already killed, and now he will kill a third; then we see Marie-Claire gently, sorrowfully, lovingly taking care of Glorette, remembering her as a child, observing the scars from both picking oranges and from having been burned with cigarettes. In most cultures this work of preparing the dead for burial fell to women; professional morticians and embalmers are a relatively new concept in human history. For Marie-Claire, it’s one more part of life.
I love the title, the tie-in to the song, the metaphor of the love it takes to do what Marie-Claire must now do for Glorette:
1965. The year Glorette was born. Marvin Gaye singing, How sweet it is to be loved by you. And then years later, on Glorette’s visits, they still listened to Marvin Gaye. The man’s voice the same but also different. More sorrowful. Like a girl just before she turns beautiful, like a woman who keeps a body from being alone. Girl you give me good feelin’ – sugar – something like a sanctified.
Based on Straight’s One Story Q&A, the piece is a central point in the novel. I don’t get that from the excerpt itself, since I had no idea from reading it that Glorette’s body had been taken to two other places before reaching Marie-Claire’s couch. In fact, my biggest complaint is that while it serves as a riveting introduction to this cluster of people, their pasts, commonalities, and differences, it’s rather stationary. There’s some momentum in Enrique’s direction via the mention of vengeance, and sure enough, he is where the novel next heads. Am I interested enough to read on? Not really; and so, while the excerpt succeeds in bringing me to Marie-Claire’s house, and while I’m honored to have been permitted there, it doesn’t give me any reason to go further.