Book Review Archives

Our Former Lives in Art

By: Jennifer S. Davis
Reviewed by: Treasure Ingels-Thompson
Random House, 2007
$13.95, Paperback

Jennifer S. Davis, whose first collection of short stories, Her Kind of Want, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, melds a deep understanding of southern culture, an affinity for the human spirit, and a poignant if cynical insight into the universal truths of the human condition in her newest collection, Our Former Lives in Art.

From last-living moment interactions, generational-divide crossings, bridges built between wives and mistresses, cures delivered to save lives and souls, and pilgrimages through space and time to redemption, Davis’ settings are as cinematic as life itself and her characters are as real as flesh.

The backdrop for these nine stories is the South that Davis knows well. On the surface, it is a place easily relegated to lore and legend that paints a pretty picture, or a conversely hideous one, but a surface reading betrays the humanity that lives, grows, and evolves there. What Davis does for the American South is subtle, sophisticated, and deftly executed. Through vivid storytelling, wrought with an appreciation for place and time, Davis digs deeper than the typical romantic view of easy southern lifestyle or the equally dishonest view of a South that is feverish with ignorance and hatred. What she shows through diverse characters is a place somewhere in-between these two extremes, a South that is home to humans like any other. The characters produced by this South are people who seek something different, something profound and often find that what life has to offer does not satisfy their needs.

Beginning her collection with "Giving Up the Ghost," Davis investigates the jealous love that one man, Frank, guards after having shared heart-wrenching moments with a teenaged girl fatally injured in a car wreck. When the question "How could a person just not be anymore?" arises, Davis’ audience understands better those things that make us real. Ending the collection with the title story, "Our Former Lives in Art," Davis explores the notion that "Art…is not always kind or easy" through the curious portal of time where a modern child has memories of a past life. Deftly the collection comes full circle from the unpredictable death of a child to the anomalous birth of a long-dead adult to demonstrate that "the earth’s endless spinning, its inevitable motion of return" makes human lives seem "negligible...in the midst of such great movement."

Treasure Ingels-Thompson lives and writes in Montevallo.