By Book Review Correspondent Carly Neely
How nice is it to read a collection of stories about a Caribbean island and have it not talk about rum punches and idle days spent lounging on a beach in a careless, unblemished paradise? It’s very nice. Truly, it’s my favorite thing about Storm Warning by E.A. O’Neal. I want action, intrigue, and complex character dynamics in every book of fiction that I read. This collection of short stories places the residents of fictitious island of St. Crescens front and center and the grit of their situations is not washed away by a dreamy backdrop. We witness a myriad of individuals struggling to pursue their desires, some resorting to crime, others becoming the victims of it.
Half of the stories are tight slices of storytelling, glancing into lives that are haunted or marred by “something not quite right.” The very first story, “Storm Warning” and later with “The Righteous Ones” treat the reader to that queasy feeling of dread that crime fiction lovers long to feel. It immediately reminded me of the work of Dan Chaon’s short stories, Stay Awake, whose imagery also stayed with me late into the night. I would lay awake restlessly wondering if there was really maliciousness in a person’s face or whether it was a projection of guilt or just a passing shadow which could have explained away and avoided a gruesome fate. Was Shirley’s husband aware of her suspicious activities or was it just the air of tension in a community preparing for a coming storm? “Storm Warning” offers a look into the lengths one may go to pursue a dream while “The Righteous Ones” has an unnerving tale of a man’s missionary service gone awry.
The other half of the stories are a bit fuller, extended works with fleshier stories that are character driven. “Collision” features a pair of brothers, facing a last resort attempt to leave the island for America. The brothers are juxtaposed with a young man, Rufus, whose life is just beginning to stabilize with his girlfriend. The three men are tied together through drugs and violence (which could be construed as a tired trope) but O’Neal has mostly separated the two issues, leading to some refreshingly organized and calm scenes involving the trading of goods. The drugs cannot be blamed for all of the violence and we’re left wondering what truly constitutes the mettle of these men. Rufus’ story reminded me strongly of moments from Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, where the lead character is extremely hard to cheer for, but you feel greater empathy for this flawed man. The desire, or need rather, to improve one’s life is strong on both sides of this story. Though despite desire, their fate often plays out regardless of personal drive. “Face-Down” offers a different format for describing the crime, playing out as a police interview transcript. Here we get to see O’Neal write unique dialogue, forming characters that are distinct without the help of narration. O’Neal mentions the relationship between the wealthy, white woman at the heart of the story and her partner and friends on the island, but it’s hard to get too deep into a commentary on it when you’re hamstrung by the format. The use of language is wonderful here however, reminding me of how much the reader can put together when given the right queues. Answers are given in just the right way so we know what is being asked.
The last story of the collection left me conflicted. “The Dead Bishop” chronicles the crime of a murdered bishop whose extracurricular activities were highly unsavory. This theme of the abusive, powerful man within the church is a popular and unfortunately familiar one.
**I’ll need to get into some major SPOILER ALERT territory here to discuss what I really struggled with, so if you would rather not know the end of this story you’ve been warned!**
The killer, Malician Rosan, turns out to be victim of the bishop’s molestation. Born Mervyn Lane, we learn he was abused by the bishop, began doing poorly in school, began cross-dressing, entered into child prostitution, with his story culminating in becoming a transsexual. My hesitation with this is more in the ‘through line’ style reasoning O’Neal is using here. I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that each of those things does not lead to the other.
Abuse does not necessitate a desire to cross dress, or create a gender or sexual identity. But this is referred to as the ‘why’ in the novel several times, from the detectives and Malician herself who credit the bishop’s actions with “making her the way [she is].” Even the police discuss theories of how the bishop’s abuse could lead to a horde of future pedophiles and homosexuals. O’Neal plays this down with a detective saying, “Quite a few adult homosexuals report being sexually abused by men as children but, from what I’ve read, there isn’t conclusive evidence proving that one leads to the other.” I just don’t believe that one statement is anywhere near enough to discredit that reasoning. By also having the victim/killer herself testify to the veracity of this explanation, it makes me wonder if we are supposed to read this as a commentary on the culture of the island towards gender and sexual identity? Because this is a fictitious island fully within the author’s control, I can’t say for sure how it’s intended, but I can only hope that it is a highly conscious choice. I desperately longed for more of a dissenting voice against this reasoning.
**End of SPOILER ALERT territory!**
Storm Warning is a short work, only 99 pages, and it reads very quickly as well. These stories left me wanting more, and I am still wondering what happens to these characters. Not only am I pondering about their individual lives, but the island itself and the community that expands and contracts around these crimes. O’Neal has created a universe where I am acutely aware how each person impacts another, and at this end of this novel, I wonder who she will introduce to me next.