Alice Fulton is best known as an acclaimed American poet, but her first collection of short stories, The Nightingales of Troy, cements her place as a first-class fiction writer. A series of connected narratives, Nightingales chronicles a century in the lives of women in the Garrahan family.
With a natural sense for narrative and for the peculiar, Fulton constructs a thoughtful framework to connect her main characters. While the Garrahan women endure as individuals, history, genealogy and a curious connection to the proposition of sainthood bind them together. Mamie, a tough, pregnant farm-wife, begins ‘Happy Dust’ with the statement, “In the 20th century I believe there are no saints left, but our farm on Bog Road had not yet entered the 20th century.” Later, after the early-morning birth of her new daughter, Annie, Mamie describes her room as “full of 20th-century light,” thus placing Annie’s very existence somewhere between sainthood and the impossibility of such a state.
The question of sainthood blooms inside these stories, though not necessarily as a theological manifestation. The sainthood Fulton investigates is rife with transgression, earthly stumbling blocks and stubborn love. The Garrahans deal with questions of sacrifice and self-preservation, of persevering as individuals while bearing the weight of the past and the forces of fate and personality.
Fulton’s prose thrives on the tactile, and, as in her poetry, the language is brilliantly precise. While often rooted in the physical, Fulton’s narration frequently moves beyond the immediate, both powerfully and subtly. In the story ‘Queen Wintergreen’ she writes of her main character, an Irish immigrant in early 20th-century New York dealing with widowhood and relocation, “The heat weighed like a basket of wet seaweed on her back. Peg Flynn had never lived far from water.”
With such carefully wrought sentences, Fulton speaks volumes about the inner workings of her characters while maintaining a coherent and magnetic narrative. For a writer who has accomplished so much in another genre, it’s a very happy (if not altogether surprising) thing that Fulton’s fiction is as perceptive and rich as her verse.