Thon stories capture life’s raw loneliness

By Kevin O’Kelly
June 7, 2011

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No matter the setting of Melanie Rae Thon’s stories — a trailer park on the Canadian prairie, a rented room with a hot plate, the empty cold streets of Boston on a winter night — the real location is almost always the same: the place no one else wants to be, where the world allows the damaged and the misunderstood to go on with their unwanted lives.

Her characters are often on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the tracks, but the true crimes in these stories are always a lack of compassion or empathy, an inability to see beyond stark or limited conceptions of right and wrong.

Of the nine tales in Thon’s latest book, “In This Light,’’ only three are new. The others are from her earlier works, “Girls in the Grass’’ (1991) and “First, Body’’ (1997). Her stories are impressively consistent: All are of high quality and unflinchingly reflect the writer’s interest in exploring life’s darkest corners.

In “Iona Moon,’’ the parents of Matt Fry, a teenage delinquent, send him to a juvenile detention center. He comes out after 18 days in solitary, mumbling nonsensically, sleeping in a burned-out barn because his parents refuse to let him return home. His fate is a terrifying lesson to another boy his age: “Until then, Willy didn’t know that if you did a bad enough thing, your parents could decide they didn’t want you anymore.’’

In “Heavenly Creatures,’’ Didi Kinkaid is despised by her neighbors for never having married any one of her three children’s fathers. The fact that she’s the closest thing to a mother the county’s homeless children now know, that she makes them sandwiches and loans them blankets, only makes her worse in the neighbors’ eyes. She is the embodied rebuke of their moral codes: “Didi’s transgressions wounded our spirits. She fed the children no mother could tame. She loved them for a night or for an hour, just as she loved the men who shared all her beds in all those motel rooms, and this terrifying, transient love . . . this endless offering of the body and the soul and the self was dangerous. . . . If she was good, then we were guilty.’’

The heart of this collection is “Nobody’s Daughters,’’ narrated by Nadine, a runaway teenage girl. It’s a masterpiece of voice, a stunning example of Thon’s ability to create another consciousness. Above all it’s a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness and need laid out in the starkest terms: “That night I found a lover. I mean I found a man who didn’t pay, who let me sleep in his car instead.’’ But it also evokes the momentary joy that can punctuate even the most miserable lives, as when Nadine and a friend break into a house while the owners are away for Christmas. When she describes how they “slid across the polished wooden floor . . . [and] spun in the white lights of the twinkling tree,’’ and how she “felt the exact size and shape of things inside me, heart and kidney, my left sweet lung. All the angels hanging from the branches opened their glass mouths, stunned,’’ the writing not only radiates pure delight, it verges on poetry.

Some of her characters, like the title character of “Iona Moon,’’ a high school farm girl who offers sex when what she wants is love, are clichés. But the vividness of Thon’s prose and the raw reality of her characters’ voices endow old story lines with the life and power that is rightly theirs. When the middle-class town boy Iona’s been sleeping with silently dismisses her at a school event rather then introduce her to his parents as his girlfriend, you feel the cruelty of it and Iona’s piercing loneliness as if it’s happening to someone you know.

Kevin O’Kelly, a regular reviewer for the Globe, can be reached at

IN THIS LIGHT: New and Selected Stories By Melanie Rae Thon

Graywolf, 271 pp., paperback, $16