Dead Girls (Nancy Lee)

Dead Girls is a notch above the average first-book short-story collection in a number of ways. It is much darker than most character-focused collections: many of the stories concern women or young girls driven or lured into prostituting themselves, and in the background of each story unfolds a news report concerning serial killer Thomas Coombs, arrested for murdering prostitutes, reminiscent in many respects of the murders by Robert Pickton, one of the worst serial killers in Canadian history. It is in the use of this plot device that Lee truly shines.

The killer’s presence is palpable, though none of the stories is concerned specifically with the immediate narrative surrounding the murders. Instead, Lee utilizes the plot device to make the stories cohere and to add an additional level of threat. When we see Jess allowing her boyfriend to prostitute her in order to help his friend lose his virginity (in the story “Valentines”), the situation is disturbing but is made even more so when the group sees Coombs on the news — the suggestion that Jess has embarked on a slippery slope and there are perhaps terrible things in store for her, or girls like her, down the line is made immediate and graphic by the juxtaposition.

In the book’s title story, “Dead Girls,” Lee utilizes the second-person in an attempt to force the reader to identify with the mother of a disappeared prostitute. This tactic is often too jarring and insistent to be effective, but Lee does a good job of positioning the reader so that s/he is not so much being asked to assume the identity of the main character, but rather asked to imagine that these women are real people, people one might know, instead of the symbolic figures that “prostitutes” tend to be in stories. Lee’s working girls are not symbols but characters whose psychology is complex and who warrant specific, not abstract, attention. Her style is bold, declarative, and terse:

You are addicted to television news. The speculation, the body bags, the hopeful high school photos; dead girls, everywhere. The police have arrested a man in a suburb of your city  —  a retired dentist, a small bungalow, a large backyard. A mass grave discovered by a dog named Queenie, who followed a tennis ball through the snow and retrieved for her owner a browning scapula.

The image of a dog with the ridiculous name of Queenie fetching a human bone is almost funny, but it is because Lee is not afraid to walk this borderline between comedy and horror that the image is truly graphic, recalling the soft surrealism of everyday life and suggesting the darker things stirring beneath the banal surfaces of the urban and suburban.

There are some places where Lee almost stumbles. In “Young Love,” where a pill-popping nurse volunteers at a high-school dance and ends up getting sexually involved with a student, things seem a little threadbare. Nothing is quite as shocking or interesting as it seems meant to be, and our heroine falls a bit too far into the “ironic, sarcastic drug-taking young professional” which has become a stereotype. Still, Lee’s stylistic strength and the looming presence of Coombs (who is being gossiped about) lends an air of freshness and depth to the story. One of Lee’s most attractive attributes, as a writer, is that she seems to know when to complicate matters, without overcomplicating otherwise strong narratives.

The great flaw of Lee’s book is its lack of interesting or complex male characters. Lee’s female characters are excellently drawn, multifaceted figures, but with the exception of Rollie, the main character in the story “Rollie and Adele,” the men are little more than potential or immediate threats, unable to establish or desire a meaningful connection with a woman — while this approach to characterizing the males makes sense thematically, it still weakens each story individually, since it leads to caricature. Even Rollie, an otherwise fascinating character, is incapable of such personal connection, placing Adele upon a pedestal for little apparent reason. The killer Coombs is an abstraction whose incomprehensibility adds powerfully to his presence, but the other male characters would benefit from the attention paid to Lee’s female characters.

Overall, Dead Girls is an intelligent book which seeks to establish a connection between the underground world of prostitution and the seemingly banal realm of suburbia. The cleverness of Lee’s structural decision to exploit the invasive presence of Thomas Coombs adds a level of cohesion to the book that it would otherwise lack — and resonates meaningfully within the individual stories, instead of being a tacked-on attempt to make the stories cohere in an artificial fashion — so that the collection seems almost novelistic in its scope. Lee’s writing is excellent, and her female characters interesting, conflicted, and worth caring about. Altogether, Dead Girls is an exceptional offering.

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