Leesa Cross-Smith writes about love like no-one else. Cross-Smith is the co-editor of WhiskeyPaper, a leading online flash fiction journal in the US. Her first book, a collection of flash fiction and short stories, Every Kiss a War, is bliss and made me swoon, over and over. Her debut novel, Whiskey & Ribbons, shows Cross-Smith is a master.
Whiskey & Ribbons is the story of a young black woman, Evangeline (Evi), in present day Louisville, United States, following the death of her husband, Eamon. Evi was widowed just prior to the birth of their baby, Noah.
The story is told in chapters with shifting points of view: Evi in the present day with six-month-old Noah, trying to put her life back together; Eamon, her now deceased husband, before his murder, and Dalton, Eamon’s best friend, who, like Evi, is rebuilding his life following the death of Eamon, while searching for his biological father.
I first read ‘Whiskey & Ribbons’ as a short story published in 2011 in the US journal, Carve Magazine, where it won the Editor’s Choice in the Raymond Carver Contest. It has now been developed into a stand-out novel of gravity, scope and a sheer understanding of human nature.
The novel is about family and the families that evolve and that we make for ourselves. Central to this is the brotherly love between Eamon and Dalton, so finely wrought. It is not a subject that receives close attention in novels—friendship between men. Their mother’s were best friends and when Dalton’s mother Penelope died, Eamon’s parents, Loretta and Calvin, took him in as their own and the boys were raised as brothers.
This blurring between friend and family—Penelope and Loretta, their friendship, and Loretta taking in Dalton after his mother’s death—is mirrored in Dalton and Eamon. Their friendship and following Eamon’s death, Dalton helping Evi with caring for baby Noah. The entwining of family and friendship is so neatly described: ‘Family was a pact. Friendship was a pact. Love was a pact. Written in blood.’
The characters are complex and wholly realised. Evi is a force. Cross-Smith, with elegance, compassion and empathy, describes Evi’s grief—the unique, horrifying grief arising from the sudden, unexpected death of her husband. Evi refers to ‘my glass bones, my glass heart’. The reader is inside Evi’s pain and disorientation. Evi describes the impossibility of being herself, without her husband: ‘I was one person before all of this and now that person is gone’. And this: ‘I needed to be here for Noah, but I wasn’t afraid to die anymore. Part of me was already dead.’
Cross-Smith understands the complexity of grief, including how it impacts those who are closest to the loss, whilst being perhaps tedious for others: ‘Grief is horrifyingly personal. Grief is horrifyingly generic.’
Twinned with Evi’s grief for her husband is loneliness. Cross-Smith captures the loneliness of Evi as she misses her husband, while trying to cope with a new baby. ‘I can see the whole day alone with Noah stretched out in front of me like a long, thin, lonely desert highway.’ Evi is not the only one. Dalton is also lonely. Cross-Smith describes the visceral sensation for Dalton: ‘I could feel the loneliness creeping up on me, like a rash. Hot. Itchy.’
Evi’s loneliness is compounded by grief, so that the two are intertwined and are so aptly described as a combined force trying to defeat her: ‘As if the superheroes of darkness, loneliness and grief had teamed up to take me on. All of them, capes billowing high in a gust of evil wind, holding hands and partnering up to devour and torture me, but never let me die.’
Eamon is motivated to act for good. He is a police officer. His name means ‘guardian’. He says, ‘In the middle of all of this shit, there has to be some good.’ And maybe, right there, Cross-Smith, has articulated the difficulty of living in this world and believing it could be different.
Dalton is more at sea. He runs a bike shop and is struggling to find his biological father. He has a volatile on-again, off-again relationship with Frances and, later, a relationship with Cassidy, ‘the bike shop girl’. Evi is never far from his mind. Dalton moves in with Evi, to help her with Noah. Their shared love and grief for Eamon is multi-faceted and, at times, difficult to negotiate, precisely because it is shared.
Cross-Smith is a master in language. Her phrasing is poetic, heart-rending and deceptively simple in parts. I think flash fiction writers make some of the best writers of longer works, precisely because flash requires minute attention to every word. Flash does not permit mediocrity or filler. Flash allows a writer only up to 1000 words to tell a story, to engulf a reader with action and character, and create an intense, emotional impact. To achieve this, a writer must be efficient, specific and smart with language. This skill translates so well into a longer piece. Here the prose remains tight and captures the reader all the way through.
Songs and music are threaded throughout the novel. Evi is a classically trained ballerina, Eamon is into 1980’s power ballads, and Dalton is a pianist with a helpless love for jazz. Cross-Smith even has an edgy and varied playlist for the novel which is addictive listening. Created by largeheartedboy, it includes, Sufjan Stevens, Bowie, Band of Horses, Spandau Ballet and many more. You can listen through her website: www.leesacrosssmith.com/whiskey-ribbons/.
Whiskey & Ribbons is a love story that will tell you something of what it is like to lose your closest, dearest love and what it takes to keep going. The story ends with the most important thing of all: hope.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Best Australian Short Stories, SmokeLong Quarterly, WhiskeyPaper, Wigleaf and Forge Literary Magazine, among others. Her story ‘It falls’ (Jellyfish Review) was recently chosen by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions 2018 (Braddock Avenue Books). Melissa co-hosted ‘Flash!’ a flash fiction workshop with the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2018. She lives in Australia. You can find her here: www.melissagoode.com and at twitter.com/melgoodewriter