And Yet They Were Happy

by Helen Phillips

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Publisher: Leapfrog Press

A story ripe with natural disasters, monsters, biblical offshoots and the occasional magic orb is none too common in the literary world, which is why I suppose author Helen Phillips didn’t weave just one, but several tales in her recent book And Yet They Were Happy. While always bringing the focus back to two central characters, a couple that alludes to being based around Phillips and her artist husband, the miniatures that fill out the 19 chapters of this whimsical work spread to include everyone from Noah to Bob Dylan.

Phillips created her work by pushing herself to write within the constraint of a 340-word essay during a time of creative struggle. The end result is a novel divvied up into sections such as, “the failures,” “the weddings” and “the hauntings” – familiar themes inhabited by unfamiliar and at times, downright peculiar perspectives. Attempting to sum up And Yet They Were Happy is all together futile because this collection of vignettes is so deeply imaginative and unique to the mind of its author. While some of the essays featured in more specific themes such as “the monsters” and “the Helens” are a little difficult to follow, others are wholly relatable. This is true particularly in “wife #4” in which Phillips tells the story of the first woman to ever push through the harsh, tear-inducing odor of an onion to cook it into something delicious. Here, Phillips manages to create something universally understandable, touching and funny within a small space.

Though at times And Yet They Were Happy takes a turn into the bizarre, in its entirety it is an insightful look at the way we come to appreciate objects, lifestyles and one another through the perspective of an extremely imaginative individual. One has to applaud this debut if not for its content then for its craft and the way Phillips has taken constraint and used it to liberate her creativity.

by Sam Gordon

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