“This book is, among many other things, about grief and loss, and about women unwilling to diminish their desires to live full and complex lives,” writes American author Danielle Evans in the acknowledgments for The Office of Historical Corrections. That typically concise yet revealing observation sums up the central characters in these six short stories and novella.
Evans’ follow-up to her celebrated debut collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010) proves her as an accomplished short story writer. Here she explores a staggering number of contemporary issues through the lens of her primarily black female protagonists, from the many different facets of race (racial disparities, respectability politics, passing, microaggressions, white supremacy) and class, to abuse and relationships. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have felt breathless and overburdened, but in each of the works here, Evans delves into these themes with care, nuance and a sharp wit.
In “Happily Ever After”, the grief and loss that shape the narrator Lyssa are indirectly tied to racial disparity in healthcare for black women. “A year and a half ago, her mother had gone to the hospital with what the intake doctor called textbook appendicitis symptoms and died of cancer eleven months later.” The story describes how Lyssa had to prepare for every doctor’s appointment, how she had to “look like a real person to them, like a person whose mother deserved to live” so that they would “tell me what you would tell a white woman”.
Another story, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want”, is essentially a parable for the Me Too era. A “genius artist” who has abused, mistreated and gaslighted countless women, including his two ex-wives and his own daughter, for the majority of his life now seeks to make amends . . . through a self-serving exhibition project. Using a nameless cast of characters, the story flirts with themes, such as the idea of corrections and rectifications, that Evans tackles head-on in the masterpiece novella that titles — and closes — the collection.
“The Office of Historical Corrections” is part history lesson, part murder mystery, with an almost dystopian air about it. Cassie, formerly a professor on tenure track, is now employed by a fictional government agency nicknamed the Office for Historical Corrections, as part of “a national network of fact-checkers and historians . . . devoted to making the truth so accessible and appealing it could not be ignored”.
Under Evans’ unrushed prose, the story slowly escalates. Soon, Cassie is tasked with looking into a case that belonged to her former colleague Genevieve, who we learn is also her childhood “nemesis”. What should have been a quick trip to a Midwestern town, to amend a correction Genevieve made to a memorial plaque, turns into an investigation into the death of a black man named Josiah Wynslow a generation ago when “a group of concerned citizens” set fire to his shop.
The search for answers reunites Cassie and Genevieve, whose complex relationship remains uneasy, alternating between rivalry and friendship. As they work on unravelling the mystery surrounding Josiah, it becomes clear that despite the animosity between them, no one knows Cassie quite as well as Genevieve, who manages to name what separates her from the rest of the book’s black protagonists: her ability to see happiness as something that she is due.
Each story in this superb collection offers an observation of modern life that feels urgent and vital, and confirms Evans’ place as one of the most electric and insightful voices writing today.
The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans, Picador, RRP£14.99/Riverhead Books, RRP$27, 269 pages
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