Review by Jennifer Lori
Tessa Mellas’s short story collection, Lungs Full of Noise, sweeps the reader up in a strange and wondrous flight. It was a delight to read, and I couldn’t put it down. This is Mellas’s debut work, and it won the 2013 IOWA Short Fiction Award. The anthology is crafted in the genre of magical realism, brilliantly blending the fantastical with the mundane and dipping into the realm of modern fable.
The twelve stories in the book explore themes of body and beauty, pregnancy and loss, issues of control and transformation, and the forces of love and power. In “Mariposa Girls,” female ice skaters screw steel blades directly to their feet and push themselves to execute perfect jumps. “Dye Job” introduces us to teenagers who eat chemicalized fruit to color their skin, while “Quiet Camp” features a retreat where young girls are hushed in a variety of small, torturous ways. A favourite in the collection was “The White Wings of Moths,” in which a woman collects caterpillars to cocoon herself from an intolerable world. Lungs Full of Noise is a striking compilation of original stories that presents fresh perspectives on the familiar territory of human experience.
Mellas’s accomplished prose guides us into rich worlds where we immediately establish intimate connections to her whimsical cast. The daring young figure skaters; Bibi, a green skinned sex-crazed college girl from Jupiter; a mother who unconditionally loves her otherworldly baby—these characters are strange, yet recognizable. Like carnival mirrors, they show distorted pictures of ourselves, reflecting back inner fears and dreams. Through them the book delivers subtle commentaries on our strengths and vulnerabilities.
The writing is breathtaking and light-handed, as Mellas weaves words together with a deft, graceful touch. There is an ethereal feeling to the narrative, like we’ve been lifted into the stories on zephyrs. Some pieces have a fable-esque quality, tapping into the essence of fairy tales. The baby in “Beanstalk” is born moss-covered and sprouting tendrils, and in “Blue Sky White” villagers recant the legends of the everlasting sky. These well-crafted stories are suggestive of modern myth. Other pieces resonate with grotesque undertones, although the language remains elegant. In the macabre narrative “So Many Wings,” which was featured in PRISM 51.4 (Summer 2013), a woman steals her deceased ex-husband’s severed arm from the morgue in order to keep him close. “Six Sisters” introduces us to the voices of miscarried babies. In the same evocative breath, Mellas blends the images of light and darkness into hauntingly captivating tales.
At times the writing flows into stream of consciousness. While I wrestled with the elusive meaning of an experimental narrative like “opal one, opal two,” the beauty of the language pulled me along. As with poetry, I can accept esoteric pieces. It’s all part of the experiential rush that carries the reader through the narrative. Lungs Full of Noise is a deep, fanciful collection that catches you in its grasp and takes you on a whirlwind ride. Part allegory, pure whimsy, and always lyrical, these are the best types of stories—those that fly around in the mind long after the book is finished and leave you desperately yearning for more.