Published On: Thu, Jun 21st, 2018

Lauren Groff’s short stories pulse with hidden malevolence

Florida. By Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books; 288 pages; $ 27. William Heinemann; £14.99.

FLORIDA is a gift to writers. Beneath its artificial shine lies dark, primeval swampland; a gulf divides the seen from the unseen. Visitors to the Sunshine State can quickly find themselves in the realm of the gothic, at once fascinated and repelled.

Born and raised in Cooperstown, New York, Lauren Groff is one such transplant, and a connoisseur of the tension between appearance and depth. Her dazzling third novel, “Fates and Furies”, a portrait of a marriage built on secrets, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her new collection plunges into similarly murky terrain. Many of the 11 stories in “Florida” describe experiences of upheaval, violent disruptions to life’s placid surface.

There is more than a little of David Lynch in Ms Groff’s Floridian landscape: exotic and bright, yet pulsing with hidden malevolence. In “Eyewall”, a wife drinks her faithless late husband’s expensive Burgundy; a hurricane that batters her house induces a series of spectral encounters. In “Dogs Go Wolf”, two little girls are abandoned on a blistering fishing atoll. In “The Midnight Zone”, a mother and her sons are marooned in “an old hunting camp shipwrecked in twenty miles of scrub”.

Real and metaphorical storms proliferate, along with ghosts, alligators and snakes. Two menaces in particular slither through Ms Groff’s work: the obliteration of women by marriage and motherhood, and looming environmental collapse. The same unnamed woman features in twin stories that frame the collection. In one she roams the gentrified neighbourhoods of her town, ambivalent about both Florida and the pernicious expectations under which mothers labour. There is a hilarious riff on her failed attempt to make Halloween outfits; beleaguered costume-makers everywhere will smile in recognition.

Less whimsically, the same character contemplates the brutality of contemporary politics. She finds a young woman who has been attacked in an alley; she “can feel in [her] bloodstream the new venom that has entered the world”. At the same time she is preoccupied by “glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.”

Against these threats Ms Groff sets the particularity of individual lives, love and above all language. Her own is alive to Florida’s lush, beguiling beauty. Lost in the swamp at night, her unnamed character observes how screen doors “pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards”. Ms Groff’s writing is marvellous, her insights keen, each story a glittering, encrusted treasure hauled from the deep.

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Lauren Groff’s short stories pulse with hidden malevolence