Cat Brushing

Jane Campbell
Grove Press ($26)

by J. Van

People rarely suspect that an older woman is capable of power, desire, and transgression, mistakenly believing her identity centers on the simple fact of her age. When perpetually reduced this way, how does a woman respond?

Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing offers a possible answer. Instead of being relegated to the periphery of culture, the elder women characters in the story collection are rendered visible and vital, with longing made dire by its proximity to death. Isolation from themselves and others, even in company, is an undercurrent.

All thirteen stories remind the reader that pity is condescension. The women in Cat Brushing are superficially regarded or otherwise infantilized, while internally experiencing the depth they have always known: “As though with the advent of wrinkles and a certain uncertainty in their balance went an erasure of all thought, all significance, all hope, all ambition, all . . . passion.” We see that the young often oust the old under the guise of kindness, all while denying them basic recognition—maybe in an unconscious attempt to disassociate from death—and how this aversion can color attempts at connection.

Campbell also explores the murkiness or sharpness of memory. Her characters experience the way certain memories can crystallize with age, the mind’s selective retention, or the slipping away of memory into a kind of grasping that manifests as mysterious and sensory. Memory also figures in the characters’ feelings of grief: “The uselessness, the hopelessness, the blankness of the terrible nature of unyielding loss; and yet also the agonizingly indestructible hope, the raw bleeding anguish of perpetual longing.”

As the best literature does, these stories feed empathy, ask uneasy questions, and jilt the denial of mortality. Though reading about challenging topics isn’t always fun, it is immensely pleasurable to delve into the aliveness and subtle surprise of Campbell’s language and to live alongside the authenticity of her characters. And these stories go further by taking pleasure as their topic, confronting taboos of older women’s sexuality and treating eroticism as commonplace—though often accessed in unexpected ways, particularly when desire has been undiscovered or repressed.

There is beauty and desperation within the questions Cat Brushing poses (what does it look like to self-actualize at the end of one’s life? What does it mean to fail?), questions that directly confront the vulnerability of our shared humanity and what it looks like when life’s potential is thwarted. These stories do not grab hold of binary sentiments and are not seduced by the neatness of placing emotions in discreet packaging. Instead, they look carefully at the knots, the disquieting mess of resolution.

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