‘Penguins’ by Lara Williams

Most stories I read flitter through my mind and then they are gone, and there are others that simply settle in and nest there forever. ‘Penguins’ is an example of the latter. It is wry, it is funny, and there is a dawning awareness that the nameless characters you are reading about are suffering a kind of muted pain: the sort of discomfort that shares a likeness with a deep bruise that is felt long before it is seen.

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of modern-day madness, the torments we put ourselves through to fit in, and the unwitting traumas we cause each other in our quest to belong somewhere, anywhere, even if it is only to ourselves.

In ‘Penguins’ we meet an unnamed twenty-nine-year-old woman, who, after suffering the frequent indignities of online dating, meets a man who is good with her friends, visits art galleries with her, and eventually tells her he loves her. Then one day he says they need to talk “About. Um. Sex.” and he proceeds to tell her that he wants her to dress up as a penguin and incubate some eggs. After an initially shocked and passive acceptance, she becomes obsessed with the specifics of what he would like her to do, seeking details that he either cannot or will not provide, until he eventually asks her to forget the whole thing. ‘Penguins’ is a delightfully absurdist glimpse of the compromises we make and passive-aggressive contortions we form to keep a relationship going, whether we are sure we want it or not. (HC)

Published in Treats, Freight Books, 2016

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