Emma Gears

Review of Anne Valente’s By Light We Knew Our Names

In Anne Valente’s By Light We Knew Our Names, killers are conjured from the whispers of school children on playgrounds, ghosts leave long-forgotten tokens for their granddaughter to find, and babies speak their first words to mysterious creatures hiding in flowers. With each of the thirteen stories in her collection, Valente blurs the line between what is and what isn’t; she weaves together magic with reality. Whereas her characters may question the truth of what they encounter, the themes Valente explores—loss and grief—are grounded firmly in the concrete and painfully real. In addition to the magic of her stories, there’s magic in Valente’s prose as well. The images she creates are sharp and exact, reminiscent of the way that one may focus on a seemingly insignificant detail during times of crisis.

By Light We Knew Our Names is Valente’s debut short story collection, published in 2014 by Dzanc Books. Her works have appeared in One Story, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, The Kenyon Review, and others. In addition to her short story collection, she is the author of the fiction chapbook An Elegy for Mathematics and the novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. The winner of several awards, including Copper Nickel’s 2012 Short Story Prize and The Masters Review’s 2014 Notable Debut Author, Valente is currently a faculty member of Hamilton College’s department of Literature and Creative Writing.

One of the most striking features of Valente’s prose is the way she uses the first-person plural, “we,” to begin several of the short stories in the collection. The “we” bridges the magical elements of her stories with real human experiences. It lends a surreal quality to her stories, complementing the surreal experiences of the characters. In addition, the “we” includes Valente’s readers in the story and invites them to imagine themselves as part of the subject, part of the characters’ struggles and triumphs. The plural first-person gives a universality to Valente’s collection. In the story which gives the collection its name, a group of young women fight back against the oppressive misogyny of their Alaskan town under the Northern Lights:

We waited through split lips, through whistles from car windows, through bribes brokered at the movie theater, free tickets for a hand job… We waited until Wren came late to the bluffs, one night in August, carrying a six-pack in one hand, the other covering her mouth where blood spilled between her fingers. She set her beer hard on our picnic table, removed her hand, slapped a wet, red handprint against the wood and said, Enough.

The four women central to “By Light We Knew Our Names” decide that to put a stop to the treatment they suffer because of their gender, they must teach themselves how to fight; and the light that illuminates their meetings is the light of the Aurora Borealis, burning bright above their seemingly hopeless endeavor. Valente describes the micro- and macro-aggressions women universally experience because of their gender, reaching deep into the hopelessness and rage women feel as a result. But, despite the grim situations many of her characters are in, Valente is careful not to paint her worlds as entirely painful and hopeless; out of the suffering connections are made and bonds are formed, which allow the characters to bear their grief.

Many of Valente’s stories explore individual characters alongside something larger; the immediate story sits in the foreground of a global backdrop. In “By Light We Knew Our Names,” we see this in the ever-present misogyny of a small town; in the haunting “Until Our Shadows Claim Us,” the connections come between a kidnapper and tragedies across the world. “In late April, the day after the Chernobyl disaster, a radioactive bloom above two continents, we awoke to a world tilted even further off its axis, a world in which Rachel Vasquez had disappeared,” Valente writes, through the voices of elementary school children struggling with grief. These images remain in the characters’ consciousness in the same way that they will stick in the readers’. Valente’s fluid, graceful prose and her introspective characters are impossible to forget. The incredible circumstances the characters find themselves in—children summoning a long dead serial killer, college-age kids stealing fake dinosaurs from the World Fair—draw us in, but it is the depths that Valente explores and her means of writing about painful human experiences that make us stay, that remain in our minds long after we close the book.

Emma Gears is a senior English (literature) major who spends a lot of her time wishing she could bring her cat to Geneseo. The rest of her time is spent crying over Bills games and coming up with new story ideas that she may or may not write down.