"West of You" Review

As part of an ongoing series, Wesley Schantz reviews our Local Authors shelf: 

West of You by Mel Murphy, reviewed by Wesley Schantz

By the front door of the Rocket Bakery on Garland, on one of those big community boards covered with announcements, there’s a flyer (like the one you can also see at Spark) advertising free stories on Audible. Sitting with me at the corner table, author Mel Murphy recounts the process of creating those stories which have been such a revelation for me to listen to and to read.

West of You was published in 2015 in the midst of her many moves between cities in the Northwest and stints in Nevada. After years of submitting stories to contests and literary magazines only to be disillusioned, Murphy began to self-publish in print and online. She has been impressed by the quality of voice talent and production her work has received on Audible, where short stories are something of a rarity. She reflects that even if she is giving away stories by making them freely available online, something which initially made her skittish at the thought of her ideas being stolen, she now looks at it differently: “At least somebody would be reading them.”

I have been and I highly recommend them. For anyone who takes writing seriously as a vocation and aspires to it as a profession; for anyone who has manuscripts of novels and screenplays and other projects waiting to see the light; for anyone who loves writing and wants to read something good, Mel’s short fiction, like “The War with Canada” which was shortlisted for a Bridport Prize, will provoke both admiration and controversy, awe at something strange and wonderful, but also a recognition of something eerily familiar.

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Mel’s stories so insistently immerse the reader in her characters’ uncomfortable personal situations and in settings bespeaking a withering social critique. As we talk, we continually come back to the context of trying make a living as a writer in this time and place. We like this area. “It has trees, it has water.” She reflects wryly on the likelihood that she and others will soon be priced out of this town and pushed further inland, as they have been ousted from Seattle and Portland. “I feel like I’m ahead of a curve for the first time, you know? And pretty soon I’ll have to move on to Boise.”

In her fiction, this fatalism is moderated to some extent by a similar note of black humor. In the closing story, “Land of Nod,” Murphy imagines a cohort of freedom fighters sabotaging the inevitable march of a plutocratic regime, but the hope is ambiguous. “It’s the old question: is greed hardwired or can it be outweighed by altruism?” In other stories, like “Object of Desire,” the question might be reframed along these lines: Is the beauty of a work of art or a human being enough to ensure we value them for their own sake, or is it all reducible to money and power?

Her outlook is bleak. But still, time and again, there is a reassertion of the possibility of small victories, reconquests of dignity by characters whose very existence is imperiled by the ignorance and greed of their neighbors. The realization of the bravery within themselves to survive their daily life and the determination to get out, constitutes an epiphany.