It’s difficult to write about desire in a way which feels wholly new, but that’s something author April Ayers Lawson does repeatedly in her debut book. There’s a persistent sense in these five short stories that young people have access to a multitude of sexual imagery and opportunities. They are either totally sheltered from sex or there is a presumption that they know how to emotionally deal with the more mature aspects of sexuality. Yet their innocence and naivety leave them unprepared to accept the physical reality of sex and its consequences. Lawson has a fascinating way of describing the separation between people’s intentions and the outcomes of their unwieldy romantic and sexual yearnings. She does this through poignant imagery and layering complicated feelings between her characters. It’s apt that the title story ‘Virgin’ is what this book is named after because the feeling of purity cut through with the startling reality of intimate encounters recurs throughout each story.
Often people who ought to be the object of desire are passed over for people the characters find themselves unexpectedly attracted to. In ‘Virgin’ a married man finds himself inappropriately staring at the breasts of a cancer survivor, in ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ women press against each other in an intimate space while gossiping about their complicated private lives and in 'The Way You Must Play Always' teenager Gretchen is drawn to a much older man who is terminally ill. I found it really effective the way Lawson shows how desire is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. In real life the object of desire isn’t necessarily who you imagine you’d be drawn to. Teenage boy Conner is both intrigued and repulsed by his mother’s transvestite friend Charlene in ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’. He steals a book with paintings by Andrew Wyeth that contains art which isn’t immediately sexy, but what he finds seductive about these paintings are the representation of the physical weight and reality of the woman Wyeth repeatedly painted. In the final story ‘Vulnerability’ at one point the main character is shown paintings by an artist who depicts scenes of garish violence that he imagines occurring between people in the South (rather than any experiences he’s witnessed). There’s a disjuncture throughout this book between the reality of actions/emotions/experiences and how they are envisioned in people’s minds.
It’s interesting reading an author who clearly comes out of an established tradition of writing from the American South – at times parts of these stories made me think of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor – but Lawson’s subjects are much more modern and her influences wide-ranging: one story begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood. The themes of humorous sexual confusion reminded me slightly of Patrick Ryan’s wonderful stories from “The Dream Life of Astronauts”. April Ayers Lawson gives such a lively and refreshing slant on the peculiar reality of people’s relationships to each other that I found “Virgin and Other Stories” often surprising, enlightening and a pleasure to read.