Review: The Geography of First Kisses by Karin Cecile Davidson (2023)


In The Geography of First Kisses, one finds portrayals of quiet elegance reminiscent of early-20th-century art films. The fourteen ethereal stories are tethered to the bays and backwaters of southern Louisiana, the fields of Iowa and Oklahoma, the pine woods of Florida, places where girls and women seek love and belonging, and instead discover relationships as complicated, bewildering, even sorrowful. A New Orleans girl spends a year collecting boyfriends and all the while considers the reach of her misadventures; a newlywed couple travels to Tulsa in search of a horse gone missing, perhaps more in search of themselves; a new mother is faced with understanding the miracles and mysteries of faith when her baby disappears; a young daughter travels to Tallahassee with her mother, trying to unravel the meaning of love crossed with abandonment. Saturated with poetic illusion and powered with prose of a dark, pulsating circuitry, the collection combines joy, heartache, and tenacity in a manner sorely missed in today’s super-structured literature.


Huge thanks to the author for sending me an eARC to read in exchange for an honest review, and even bigger apologies for taking so long! I’m generally behind on everything book-related this year, but with this book there was an added reason: I loved it so much, I wanted to read it again before writing my review. This is really rare for me, as my toppling TBR glares accusingly at me if I so much as think about rereading, but this short story collection more than deserves extra time – it is really special.

I was looking forward to The Geography of First Kisses immensely, as Karin Cecile Davidson’s writing holds a special place in my heart. Her debut novel, Sybelia Drive, had a real effect on me – the story is so intricate, the prose so beautiful – it’s a book I did a lot of shouting about on Twitter, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already. This collection had a lot to live up to for me, and it exceeded my high expectations.

The fourteen stories that make up The Geography of First Kisses hit the short story collection sweet spot of being tonally similar enough to form a cohesive whole, but individually full of variation and surprises. Like an album, there are repeated themes and strands, refrains that run throughout the book, but each story is its own song. The title story is the perfect opener – a coming of age tale with the scents and sounds of Louisiana woven into the prose, dreamlike and beautiful but punctured with occasional sharp shocks of reality. The writing oozes gorgeousness like honey, and lobster pots and oyster shells and shrimp trawlers set the scene for the journey in and out of the bayous that this collection is going to take us on.

Location is key, as you might expect from the title, but we don’t stay in Louisiana for all of the tales. One of my favourite stores, ‘We Are Here Because of a Horse,’ opens: “Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch,” and depicts a wild goose (horse?) chase that somehow encapsulates a whole relationship and the layers that make it up. I loved Meli, the character searching for the horse – I’m always in such admiration when a short story, across its brief pages, can make a character seem so nuanced and real.

I think that is Karin Cecile Davidson’s gift with these stories – she presents moments that contain within them hundreds of other moments. The prose flicks seamlessly between present and past, and there’s such wisdom in the understanding of how time works, how those defining moments of our childhood live with us and yet are so hard to recapture: “The moment stumbled forward. Later, Celia would remember it as fleeting, a lissom second, like a flower, blown away, buried by sand” (From ‘Soon The First Star’). There’s a description in ‘The Biker and the Girl,’ a story pulsing with subtle menace and tension, that feels so innocent, so nostalgic, that it tips the story away from the sense of foreboding for a moment: “There was a way the days fell into each other, one after the other, warm and unencumbered.” It took me back to times in the past where I’ve experienced exactly that feeling – days without pressure, slipping into each other. When an author describes feelings you’ve had but never articulated, I think that’s one of the most special things about reading.

There are so many characters in the stories who have remained with me – the narrator of ‘One Night, One Afternoon, Sooner or Later,’ who whiles away days and nights with Jude and Micah, the three of them “twisted together, trying to figure things out by doing them, by not doing them;” Eliza, whose sister we are addressed as in her story about the thrill of a hurricane; Howdy and Morgan in Sweet Iowa, whose love story has the strangest beginning (hint: it involves pig tossing); Carly’s cousin Robbie in ‘Bobwhite,’ haunted by the big brother who died in the war: “Carly wondered if Robbie knew it would be okay to cry.” There is such power in these stories, from the simmering brutality of ‘Gorilla’ to the surreal, mythical touches that creep into stories like ‘In The Great Wide.’

It is hard to describe Karin Cecile Davidson’s style, except by saying that her stories remind me of almost all of my favourite short story writers, from classics such as Raymond Carver, Angela Carter and Alice Munro to contemporary favourites of mine like Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado. These stories are at that level – they’re so layered and intricate, and just beautiful to read. I honestly feel quite evangelical about this writer – with her first novel and now this collection of stories, her talent is so awe-inspiring, and her words are such a rich pleasure to read. I’ll be looking out for what’s next, for sure. Do check out her work – you will not regret it!

The Geography of First Kisses by Karin Cecile Davidson is published by Kallisto Gaia Press and is available to purchase here.


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