It was given to me by a university lecturer. Retrieved from the back of a filing cabinet and handed over with the flattering belief I’d return it safely. I held its velvety cover in my hands, slimmer than a novel, fatter than a pamphlet, the buff front cover yellowing at the edges. What I read inside left me heady and amazed.
Phillips does not call them stories or poems, she calls them pieces. Each piece is a page, each page a snapshot of small town American life. The familial household threads the pieces together, as relatives try to make sense of each other. In kitchens, personal histories unravel as oven doors open and ‘heat falls into the room like a pealing of bells’.
Phillips takes us deep into young female psyches. She exposes their parochial trappings and we watch as they emerge to swerve or soar. A stripper grooms her protégé cousin saying she’s ‘white an dewy an tickin’ like a time bomb an now’s the time to learn.’ Teenagers descend cinema steps, mouths ‘swollen and ripe’ from their squirms in the Friday night dark. Once outside, the girls ‘tossed their heads and shivered like ponies’. It’s not quite poetry, it’s not quite prose, but each startling narrative fizzes with sensual detail. Phillips takes a magnifying glass to this domestic landscape and finds it raw with longing.
I was nineteen when I first read Sweethearts, susceptible to the yearning in its pages certainly. Now, almost twenty years later, it still electrifies me, with its crackle of sex and desire. It made the biggest impact on my own writing and continues to influence me today. I did return it to my lecturer. After a long search, the internet bore me a copy of my own. I’m ashamed to admit I wouldn’t give it to someone I barely knew. I keep it like an heirloom, a piece of treasure on my bookshelves, so I’m telling you about it instead. Seek it out.
‘Sweethearts’, by Jayne Anne Phillips, Wingbow/Truck Press (USA), 1976,