Hello and you’re all very welcome. My name is Alan McMonagle and I’m going to introduce and hopefully persuade all of you to shell out for this debut collection of short fiction, Growing a New Tail by poet and now – I’m happy to say – short story writer, Lisa C. Taylor
And so the first thing I noticed before I read a single word was the title, Growing a New Tail. Aside from the clever wordplay and its storytelling allusions, I was already asking myself what happened to the previous tail? And were there more than one previous tails? And if so, what happened to those? And what will the new tail be like? And will it last?
Leaving the questions aside, I began to read the stories. And soon I detected possible responses to my early curiosity. For if growing a new tail suggests both the loss of something or someone cherished and a yearning for some kind of renewal – whether literal or figurative – then the stories in this collection provide a probing mix of excursions into the “what is” versus the “what-might-have-been” and indeed “what-still-might be”.
From the get-go of the poetic and mantra-like Visible Wounds, it is clear that there is plenty packed into these stories. The sands are constantly shifting, and the reader is very much kept on his or her toes whether it be the unsettling secret quietly creeping up on us in the story Five Percent or the overbearing husband in Dents and Ruts and the very real and irreversible dent in store for him. Stories such as Storm, It’s Up to You, New York, and The Cooling make us aware of the fact that not only are people and their situations and circumstances ever-changing, there is a suggestion that things are not quite as they seemed to begin with.
Themes of loss and betrayal and fading passion recur. In the carefully and caringly handled story Monuments, a couple struggling to cope after their daughter dies in a road accident finally sit down to thrash it all out. The story set-up suggest that it is already too late for such tete-a-tetes, and yet somehow a flicker of possibility, of renewal arises between husband and wife. It’s only a flicker at this moment in time, but it is there and for now that’s all that matters. In Narrow Paths Somewhere, a married nurse suddenly imbued with a psychic gift is prompted to seek out a lover from her past. “Sometimes ten years can make a woman feel like life has caught her in a headlock, and she’s choking on the monotony,” purrs the spikey narrator in the title story Growing a New Tail, and then, miraculously and poignantly, and in the space of less than four pages, Lisa’s prose proceeds to weave in and out of the actual history of her marriage to date and of her(spoiler alert!) fantasy life with the edgier, more interesting and appealing man she has meticulously fashioned for herself.
And lest the reader think these are mere stories of tired marriages and passion gone to seed, Taylor is always fast in with a new revelation, an unexpected swerve, and a sentence that never fails to light up the proceedings. Lisa C. Taylor does a nice line in wry humor while getting to the heart of familial dynamics in ways more celebrated writers have seldom achieved. And something else I like about Lisa C. Taylor’s writing is her ability to make us sympathize with characters who have behaved carelessly, and perhaps more tellingly, a matching ability to distance us from those who appear to have been wronged.
These stories constantly swerve and bend off-course. They move in surprising directions. At once they bear witness to unhappy events that can haunt our lives and the spirit of endurance that somehow kicks in. And, pleasingly, there are notes of optimism in that it is never too late to right wrongs, seek forgiveness, and make a fresh start. The consolations may be small but nevertheless there is something to cling to seems to be the rally call.
And a lovely thing happens whereby what initially appears to be some lurking incident, be it trauma or tragedy from long ago coming back to haunt, is flipped so that along with its unhappy re-emergence may also arrive the means to heal and to move on. And so a genuine and very real renewal becomes possible.
Time plays a key part in these stories. Brief moments and also time’s relentless passing. These are stories where ten minutes is all it takes for a teenager to question the rest of his life – where the slightest hesitation can have the rug pulled from under your carefully prepared exit into the rest of your life. And indeed before we know it, it is too late and we get a husband’s move and if-only afterlife perspective from the hospital gurney upon which his lifeless body now rests. In the wonderfully hallucinogenic Immersion, a widow discovers that passion remains possible even after her husband’s death.
And it is in stories like Immersion, with its stretching of the grounded and the concrete, that Lisa C. Taylor is at her best. The writing, like her characters, takes flight and soars, leaving us little doubt as to the power of imaginative writing and reminding us what good storytelling can do. It is writing that continually sends us back to the collection’s title, and to the possible that yes, renewal is possible.
Alan McMonagle is the author of Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame (Picador, 2020), Ithaca (Picador, 2017), Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House/Syracuse University Press, 2013), and Liar, Liar (Wordsonthestreet 2008).