- Coming Alive
Courtney E. Morgan
FC2/University of Alabama Press
216Pages; Print, $17.95
Courtney E. Morgan’s vivid debut is not for the faint of heart or any reader in need of trigger warnings. The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman opens with a nightmarish backdrop by examining the aftermath of violence against a woman. However, the reader soon discovers dissection is subversion, allowing the victim to metaphorically come alive, transforming and finding a voice. The corpse provides a fractured narrative account for any reader willing to look closely at Nora’s remains on a medical journey of examining a woman’s body in pieces.
Turning the idea of the formulaic mystery story on its head, the collection begins with the startling “Autopsy” with categories such as “Cause of Death,” “Manner of Death,” “Diagnosis,” and “Anatomic Findings.” The victim’s body becomes the subject of a cold examination while details of her life are woven into the findings, creating a deeper mystery of character. The story focuses on the entropy of decay as the reader struggles to find deeper meaning in the senselessness of violence, a woman reduced to a body. Despite the hard-hitting anatomical details of autopsy, the prose opens a subtle implied narrative in a victim’s ability to live on because the body tells a story through evidence. The reader feels the loss of an individual life, even as the body is coldly examined internally and externally, taken apart in a scientific examination reducing the victim to a urinary tract, reproductive organs, central nervous system, and a gastrointestinal system.
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There is nothing escapist about this view of violence where the body is the explicit factor unfolding questions of the self, the deepest mystery. Graphic details build fractured fictions that shock and awaken the reader with exquisite syntax, shattered lines on shattered lives, and vivid imagery.
Given the gory, yet coldly scientific approach of rendering a protagonist as anatomical evidence, the voice of the collection is an accomplishment of situational irony, bringing unexpected beauty to horror. Gorgeous language breaks through violence. The opening story and the collection’s title create compelling subtext for all that comes after, poetry born from bones breaking open. [End Page 22]
While many of the stories are told in different voices, the collection is loosely linked by fictions exploring Nora’s life and death. After the initial autopsy, later stories reveal Nora’s life. “On the Thinness of Skin” focuses on sadomasochistic lesbian fantasy, perhaps Nora’s premonition of her own violent assault. The story flirts with an experimental, eerie transference by same-sex desire as Nora shares darkly brutal sexual encounters with her lesbian doppelganger, Noreen.
“Emptied” takes the reader on a more intimate and sympathetic portrait of Nora, explaining her longing for connection and the ways in which longing put her in danger. Loneliness and desire for intimacy lead to promiscuous relations with various men even amid the unfulfilled same-sex longing Nora seems to resist. Internal conflicts of the past haunt her memory: “When she had been a girl, she had loved another girl and girls are cruel, crueler than boys, but only because they have that inner vision to see the softest places, the holes in a person’s shell that go straight through to the unprotected parts and before they are women and they learn better, they will poke it and the soul will shake.”
The collection travels back in time from revealing Nora as a corpse to a fully humanized living woman, her most personal thoughts and experiences laid bare to the reader. The prose explores Nora’s life through deep internalization displaying Nora as a real, flawed, complex human being. Nora is a victim of murder but also a victim of herself: a lonely woman struggling to find connection to other females despite her own subconscious internalized misogyny, the very force that will lead to her victimization by men, despite her love of women.
Ironically, the collection’s haunting quality is also its saving grace. While many...