I’ve been a fan of Lynn Mundell’s writing ever since I discovered her work in 2015, so when her debut collection won the Yemassee 2021 Fiction Prize, I was not surprised.
Mundell is a master of the darkly funny and tenderly magical. In this collection, she generously lends her voice to characters on the cusp of growing up or on the verge of awakening. They are outsiders, disadvantaged or exceptionally fierce, who desire to belong and forge their own idiosyncratic paths.
A baby gets born, again and again, without giving up hope to be granted life. The youngest of five wives at a county fair struggles to find something to call her own. A woman who’s “going for magical” ends up being an arsonist. The doll of a baby sister suffers from a young man’s angst about being drafted into war. And pregnant women with illuminating bellies bring hope to a darkening world.
Several of these twenty stories are about girls and women who, although intrigued by their own sexuality, are arrested from discovering what they want or possess, because they’ve already been appropriated by men, their male gaze and male demands and male hands.
The collection’s title story “Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us” is a humorous yet forceful appeal to free women from injustice such as Spanx, ravenous eyes, and 24-Hour Fitness.
“Don’t worry, you needn’t see our kind again,” Mundell writes. “Once sorted and organized, we will find our ways home, to deserts, oceans, and mountains, to rejoin our wild, endangered kin—butterflies, sea turtles, bees, wolves.”
Mundell’s prose is both clear and poetic. Her original metaphors sing without distracting us from what’s at stake. In one of my favorite stories “Smile, Lisa,” Mundell imagines being Da Vinci’s unwilling model, who does her husband a favor by posing for her portrait yet keeps her mouth closed. “Her teeth are a pearl necklace locked away in a box.”
Wit, resilience, and power abound in this collection. The Nilssons sisters at 16, for example, change the world they live in by their mere presence. “That fall the tap water tasted like their strawberry perfume. Research showed their dual menses delayed births and UPS deliveries.” In another tale, a brother tries to hide his sister’s looks by forcing her into a bronze suit. But when she wears it, she becomes “a fearsome warrior, her bronze body growing green as the hills of unconquered lands.”
Like the grateful new parents singing along to the radio in the opening story, we want to sing along with Mundell and belt out these “songs of danger, bravery, heartache, and love.” Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us is a triumph of female empowerment, no less than brilliant.
To find out more and purchase the book: Let Our Bodies Be Returned To Us by Lynn Mundell
Claire Polders is the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers (A Whale in Paris, Atheneum/Simon&Schuster, 2018). Her short work appeared in Electric Literature, Tin House, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, and Bending Genres. She’s currently writing a memoir about traveling through Vietnam during the pandemic and elder abuse in Florida, and is putting together a collection of short prose. Find her online at www.clairepolders.com