In Willful Creatures Aimee Bender takes us on a journey to a fantastical world in which authentic love blossoms. This is a place where a boy with keys for fingers is a hero, a family of pumpkin heads embrace their ironhead son and potato-children dotingly follow their mother around as she completes her daily chores. With the mix of charm and keenly felt emotion that characterised her New York Times bestseller The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender once again proves herself to be a masterful chronicler of the human condition.
Fifteen stories bursting with heart and marvel make up this daringly original collection by Bender (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt). Nameless characters lend the tales an allegorical feel and heighten the emotional impact, as in one story's breathlessly cinematic love scene between a seducer (identified only by an expletive, "the mother ") and his prey ("the starlet"). With stories that turn on stark cruelty, Bender deftly forces uncomfortable identification with unsympathetic protagonists who torment the weak: like "Debbieland" 's collective "we" of predatory girls, and the man in "End of the Line" who purchases a miniature man as a pet and tortures him. Elsewhere, she evokes tender relationships with a balance of earthy heartbreak and otherworldly strangeness. In "Dearth," the sudden appearance of seven potato-children forces the solitary protagonist into messy motherhood; in "Ironhead," a pumpkin-headed couple grieves for their dead child, whose heavy head, literally a clothes iron, kills him with its debilitating weight; in "The Leading Man," a boy with key-shaped fingers wishes only to unlock the secret of his father's wartime trauma. Bender's surrealism is never gratuitous in the fantastical yet truthful stories of this singular collection.