I first came across Leesa Cross-Smith’s work last year when her short story ‘Crepuscular’ made it on to my radar (and into In the Media where I often include her work). I loved it. I particularly loved the line, ‘I told him ties were just penis arrows’, which I still think about regularly. That particularly story doesn’t feature in her debut collection Every Kiss a War but 27 stories with lines just as startling and memorable (in many different senses) do.
The collection’s about our battle with love: to find it, to keep it, to get over it once it’s gone. Cross-Smith explores love in all its forms beginning in ‘Skee Ball, Indiana’ with teenage best friends. Although it’s the love one of them has for the other’s mother who takes in her after her abortion that stands out: Jo Carpenter, stuck to my heart like a temporary mom tattoo, along with Cross-Smith’s understanding of teenage alienation: “I’m always outside of myself,” I said, “like I have to remind myself to climb back in.”
Another teenager gets a boy to give up his other girls then leaves him with a note: Come on. I am a lioness on a big, hot rock. I told you that. Another sits with her college boyfriend in his car, your heart beating like two quick tick-tocking clocks, like two fists with their muffled punching.
Adults negotiate all the different stages of relationships. The beginnings where in ‘Put Your Wild Heart Between Her Teeth’ He tied the thick, heavy, gasoline soaked Knox-knot in her stomach the first night they met and in ‘Absolutely’ where His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read. A year into marriage when Violet in ‘What the Fireworks Are For’ runs away from her husband Dominic and finds herself torn between him and baseball player Roscoe Pie: I searched the radio for songs about how it ached in the same place whether you were leaving or heading home. And when you’re unsure whether you should be breaking up or staying together: And staying in love is like trying to catch a light. To hold it in my hand. Even when it looks like I have it, I don’t. (‘Kitchen Music’)
The stories are infused with musical references, with whisky and cowboys, with bodies. Many of the characters drive to and from places, their physical journeys echoing their internal ones. Cross-Smith ranges confidently from first to second to third person narratives, giving voice to both female and male narrators. The length of the stories spans flash-fictions which leave an impression of a moment, to linked stories covering break-ups and new relationships.
Two things about this collection in particular are impressive: the variety of relationships and situations Cross-Smith writes about, from high school romances to the aftermath of a husband shot dead when his wife’s five months pregnant, and the precision and poetry of the language. There’s a puff quote from Roxane Gay on the book (yes, that Roxane Gay) which says ‘Where she is most stunning is in the endings of each of the 27 stories…creating crisp, evocative moments that will linger long after you’ve read this book’s very last word’. I first read Every Kiss a War at the beginning of the year and many of those moments did stay with me. It’s a book I’ve thought about often and re-reading it last week showed me I was right about how beautifully written it is. Cross-Smith is the best writer you probably hadn’t heard of until today.
Thanks to Leesa Cross-Smith for the review copy.