Her Sister Is Dead but Life, and Libido, Carry On

WE WERE THE UNIVERSE, by Kimberly King Parsons

When you hear the phrase “grief novel,” relentless, wildly entertaining horniness probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s what Kimberly King Parsons’s singular debut novel, “We Were the Universe,” immediately delivers.

Even those already familiar with Parsons’s fearless wit and sizzling depictions of yearning (her 2019 story collection “Black Light” was longlisted for the National Book Award) would likely do well to buckle up first. The ride could not be more rewarding; Parsons’s transgressive boldness allows us to feel the soul in places that moderation simply cannot reach.

“We Were the Universe” is told in first person from the viewpoint of Kit, the young mother of the almost-4-year-old Gilda. Kit struggles with boundaries, getting Gilda to stop breastfeeding and porn addiction, but don’t judge. First of all, her thoughts are really fun to read (she wants to sleep with everyone she meets and she has very creative ideas about it); second, she is mourning the untimely death of her younger sister, Julie.

It isn’t just the loss of Julie that’s made Kit ultrathirsty: “My high school guidance counselor called me ‘pleasure-seeking,’” she recalls early on, “and I still don’t understand what’s so bad about that.” But now that Kit is a mom in the Dallas suburbs and monogamously married to her husband, Jad, her former coping mechanisms of casual sex and hallucinogens are unavailable to her.

That leaves the imagination. In the past, psychedelics served her as a valuable narrative engine, each trip providing “a story with a clear beginning, middle and end.” She prizes physical contact for these same reasons. (“Touch: It progresses, it’s forward-moving, impossible to walk back.”) And rather than bringing up ghosts, the bodies of others give Kit a chance to stick her head out the window of the haunted house of her sister’s death and breathe; sex is “a connection that frees you from yourself.”

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