Invisible Pleasures by Mary Frances Zambreno

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“Fairy Godmothers”
Image“The Lady of the Mercians”
“At Fountain Abbey”
“Miss Emily’s Roses”
“Heavy Breathing”
“The Last One Left”
“Watching Goldfish Die”
“Aunt Concetta’s Cat”
“The Little Girl in the Picture”
“A Craving for Oysters”
“The Fire Rider”
“Flesh and Blood”
“Luck of the City”
“The Ghost in the Summer Kitchen”
“The Bearwalker”
“A Way Out”
Jane Yolen writes a glowing introduction to Mary Frances Zambreno’s first anthology, Invisible Pleasures. The celebrity endorsement proves to be a mixed blessing. I thought there would be Yolen-like fairy tales in Invisible Pleasures, an assumption that left me ill-prepared for the actual contents: a carefully crafted collection full of small-scale, academically inclined stories.

“Choices” starts the anthology strong, giving you a good sense of Zambreno’s strengths and preoccupations. Protagonist Freawaru lives in the time of Beowulf. Dubbed a “peace weaver” because she was given in marriage to end an inter-tribal feud, she takes this role seriously when she consults with a witch about the sex of her unborn child. Zambreno, who has a PhD. in medieval literature, evokes the gritty texture of life in the Dark Ages with ease. In this story, as in others, she really gets inside the head of a woman from centuries past. While her protagonist’s actions may seem foreign and shocking to us, we can also recognize them as human.

From this most interesting first step, Zambreno falters with the next story, “Fairy Godmothers.” Reimagining the tale of Cinderella as one of madness rather than one of magic, the author tries to explore the instability of truth via an unreliable narrator and some wry asides. Great concept, but Zambreno bangs the reader over the head when she writes, “So is this story realism, religious allegory, or fairy tale? It all depends, doesn’t it?” Thanks for stating the obvious, Mary. I found myself wishing for Tanith Lee’s various takes on Cinderella, which, though similar, contain more lushness, cleverness, and overall better writing.

“The Lady of the Mercians” brings the collection back to firmer, more familiar ground. Back in her favorite historical field, Zambreno investigates the life of Aethelflaed, who worked in the early 900s C.E. with her husband, Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia, and her brother to unify Christian England. Against a backdrop of clashing armies and witchcraft, Zambreno dramatizes the interior monologue of the titular character as she tries to bring peace to her land. Aethelflaed, like Freawaru (see “Choices”), comes across as a sympathetic figure.
“At Fountain Abbey” mixes historical fiction and the Robin Hood legend with interesting results, focusing on the days after the break-up of the band of merry men. A young boy stumbles across a secret “monastery” in the greenwood and discovers that the legend lives on. This one brought a smile to my face with its clever plot twists and its vive-la-resistance ending.

“Miss Emily’s Roses” is a modern-day vampire story in which pre-adolescent Laurie observes one of her spinster neighbors suck the other, her sister, dry. The twist lies in who leeches off whom. With a pitch-perfect voice for the 12-year-old heroine and a thought-provoking meditation on the consequences of taking over someone’s blood/life, “Roses” is a compact, intriguing story that will stick in your mind.

“Bloodstone,” also a vampire tale, fares worse. Set in a fantasy city and featuring streetwise gamine Aeres, “Bloodstone” lacks Zambreno’s humor and humanizing touch. The same problem afflicts “Heavy Breathing,” an uninteresting gimmick (what if those ominous prank calls really were warning you?), and the story after that, “The Last One Left.” Zambreno’s matter-of-fact style, which serves her so well in her historical fiction, transfers poorly to horror.

In “Watching Goldfish Die,” Zambreno uses the unreliable, ironic narrator again (see “Fairy Godmothers”) to hilarious effect as she traces the tale of a solipsistic author and his magic typewriter. I snickered all the way through, perhaps because I am an author myself.

The next two stories, “Aunt Concetta’s Cat” and “The Girl in the Picture,” both seemed pointless to me. The first, about an indestructible pet, and the second, about a grade-school girl’s local history project, are both competently told. However, they move smoothly without any twists, points or surprises to catch your interest.

Fortunately, we’re back to the medieval ages with “A Craving for Oysters,” arguably the best story in the volume. Zambreno balances history, fantasy, and her trademark sympathetic, proto-feminist sensibilities perfectly in this story about a woman, her suitor and her dead husband. “Craving” develops all characters with depth and tenderness unusual for a very short story, and the ending is exactly as it should be.

Next up, “The Fire Rider” brings to life a simple scenario in which a boy, a girl, and their telepathically linked horse are trying to escape a magically created prairie fire. Rhythmical and imagistic, Zambreno’s prose eloquently evokes the intensity of the fire and the protagonists’ fear and wonder.

Also emotionally powerful, but stylistically more concrete and realistic, “Flesh and Blood” is about mercenary outlander Jennet. On assignment from a rich lord to return a slave girl to her original owner, Jennet finds her cynicism challenged by the appearance of a four-letter word: love. Animated by a lively plot and characters that aren’t what they seem, Zambreno’s worldcraft shines here. Too bad that the following Jennet story, “Luck of the City,” flattens most character depth for an unoriginal, icky horror/revenge tale.

Zambreno picks up her tour de force again with “The Ghost in the Summer Kitchen,” which is what “Aunt Concetta’s Cat” should have been. Ostensibly a story about a teenager who meets a girl ghost in the summer kitchen and gives her cooking lessons, “Ghost” works more subtly as a touching meditation on familial traditions and how the past and present may haunt each other.

Following “Ghost” comes “Bearwalker,” a fascinating tale based on the “were-beast” stories from the unique cross-cultural folklore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Zambreno does convincing ventriloquism here as a French-American girl whose sister is haunted by the bearwalker, but she fails in the final story, “A Way Out,” about an elderly African-American tenement dweller. Instead of being understanding, Zambreno’s characterization in “A Way Out” just comes across as stereotypical, ending Invisible Pleasures on a less original note than it deserves.

Zambreno writes psychologically astute historical fiction, as well as sensitive fantasy, but don’t underestimate her twisted sense of humor. Those looking for an anthology of unusual and varied subjects should read Invisible Pleasures for its own merits…and not just because Jane Yolen said so.
Publisher: American Fantasy Press (December 1, 2005)
Price: $25.00
Hardcover: 241 pages 
ISBN: 0961035242