Debra Monroe’s writing is sneaky, and I mean that in a good way. In her new book of essays, the Flannery O’Connor award winner and author of six other books of fiction and nonfiction considers roughly 40 years of her life, offering such measured observation and calm recitation of events that the effect on the reader can happen on a time delay. Immersed in the early essays on the life of a single parent, it took me a beat to grasp just how tense I had become; a witty side-swipe— “As long as my boyfriend didn’t talk,” she notes dryly at one point, “he was a void into which I poured thoughts so profound he apparently found them inexpressible”—is all the more satisfying thanks to her reserved tone.
Monroe covers a lot of ground in these essays: early bad marriages (and later, a happy one), schooling, work, the crush of early parenthood, the terror of raising a Black daughter in a country whose overt demonstrations of racism have been newly invigorated, and downsizing once the kids are gone. She handles every beat with a searching intellectual curiosity. For all the tension animating these essays, there is humor and beauty too. After that description of single parenting that had me hunched in a ball, she pauses to say that none of this is what her child remembers: she remembers following the big vacuum with her toy vacuum, carrots from the garden, the tree house.
The book is compact and dense, occasionally weighed down by passages of repetition, but far more often sharpened by Monroe’s gift for finding the most compelling angles of common life events. When she writes about young adulthood, for example, she delves into her quest for mother figures and into the misogyny echoing through both her restaurant work and her marriage at the time. She is wonderfully matter-of-fact about strategizing to balance single parenthood with sexual agency, and agonizingly so about an early spring day on which she felt “a happy surge of reinvention,” not knowing that her day would end with a brutal assault by an acquaintance. “My sense of safety wasn’t compromised that night,” she writes in a slice so clean it sinks all the way in, “but reconfigured to match reality.” It all adds up to a portrait of a life that could feel familiar in its topics of marriage, children, work, but never does. Instead, Monroe reveals the riptides that have always lurked in quotidian places. These pages may be rife with people refusing to see what they don’t want to know, but the author is not one of them.