I first heard Heather Fowler read at AWP 2016, in a panel on magical realism, where she read excerpts from "With The Silence of a Deer" - where a women wakes with a stag's head for a head. A woman with a hunter for a boyfriend, who finds she can't speak with this deer's head, who has to write down on paper "I'm hungry. Please don't shoot me," before she bends over the yard to eat grass. The comparison - predators/prey - is apt for the entire collection. Each tale explores a coupling, drawing clear boundaries between gendered power dynamics but unclear boundaries between causation and consent.
Often, the women in these stories don't know how to say no: "so I took to nodding and letting it be; I was, at least, good at that, getting better and better, a nodding welter-weight champion." There's a discomfort (for me) reading this over and over: "I hear something rip. I think, That must be passion. My clothes had to go. Somewhere. Oh, the destruction!" Or: "Her life felt an endless parenthetical omission to the whisper of pleasure." Or, even when a woman is saying no - "'OhmyGod that is hot,' he said. 'I love that you don't want me.'"
To be fair, at the end of their stories, the women largely escape their scenarios. They retaliate. But they never begin with agency. They are always the bait in the trap, never the teeth. "She was an object in repair," Fowler writes. So not only was she an object. Not only was she objecting.
I appreciate most when the magical transformations in People With Holes lead to pensiveness. When the stag-girl has time to realize that her 'Neanderthal' hunter "said the dirty words without hesitation [...] She wasn't sure he knew the other words." I only wish Fowler lingered in these moments more. Broke them down to the biodes. That's always been my favorite part of magical realism - how the magic helps decode deeper truths. Hovers for a moment in that pain.