Review of Aubrey Hirsch’s WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR

Aubrey Hirsch. Braddock Avenue Books, $16.00 paperback (134 pp) ISBN: 978-0-615-74179-6

In Aubrey Hirsch’s debut collection, a central idea around which her stories revolve is the advice we follow and the advice we ignore. Her characters are often desperate: stranded or caught in soul-crushing situations, bewildered by mysterious happenings, and/or overwhelmed by tragedy. People who need help coping with the chaos of life. In other words, us.

Hirsch’s stories mimic, gesture at, or meditate upon the various resources to which we so often turn and with which we are usually disappointed. In “Advice for Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet,” she uses the form of a veterinarian’s office pamphlet on pet death—the ineffectual advice, the bland assurances—to relate the story of Ethan and Clare learning that Ethan has cancer three weeks after their dog was diagnosed with the disease. The disjunction between bromides like “Write about your feelings” and impossibly high and tragic stakes associated with a terminal illness create a sense of doubt and desperation about whether advice will make much difference. Really, what suggestions can anyone offer in a situation like this: “He writes check after check. He puts ‘chemo’ in the memo line, or ‘drugs,’ or ‘test,’ or ‘Millie’ [their dog]. He can’t remember the last time he wrote something that wasn’t a check.”

Why We Never Talk About Sugar is a remarkably powerful book overall because Hirsch never allows her formal inventiveness to devolve into a gimmick. Her prose is usually spare and decidedly flat. Over the course of the stories, a sense of dread accrues. Readers grow suspicious of characters’ good intentions and their desire to do the right thing because these motives are answered with yet more pain, yet more crushing sense of obligation. This is especially true of “Strategy #13: Journal” and “No System for Blindness,” which are about a young person caring for a seriously ill parent. These stories owe a debt to Amy Hempel’s masterpiece “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” in that they deal with the same morbid power a terminally ill loved one can have over us.

One thing that occasionally diminishes the emotional heft is Hirsch’s habit of showing characters bursting into tears. Though Hirsch (and any writer for that matter) should not be obligated to adhere to the adage “If a character cries, the reader never will,” in a couple instances she may try too hard to make the reader feel sad.

Hirsch’s collection is a highly pleasurable read for several reasons, not the least of which is that for each story that cleaves to realistic depictions there’s another that engages in dramatic urban fantasy, like the title story that posits a world where women start giving birth to all sorts of inanimate objects they love. Why We Never Talk About Sugar is itself easy to love, penned with confident prose, frequent emotional punch, and playful imagination. (March 2013) 

Purchase Why We Never Talk About Sugar HERE.

Reviewer bio: Alex DeBonis has a PhD in fiction writing and literature from the University of Cincinnati. He currently teaches fiction writing and literature in rural West Tennessee. His work has been a finalist in the 2012 Esquire Short-short Fiction Contest and a semifinalist in 2012 Crazyhorse Fiction Contest. His story “Shout at the Devil, Bark at the Moon” will appear in The Man Date: Fifteen Bromances out in 2013. He lives with his wife and son in Paris, TN.