The women and girls who populate Floridian author Dantiel W. Moniz’s outstanding literary debut, “Milk Blood Heat,” are perched precariously on the razor thin edge of something big: adulthood, motherhood, infidelity, love, loss, death. In each instance, there’s a sense that the outcome could go either way, and therein lies the tension that propels the reader through this collection of 11 tightly wound short stories.
Set in and around Jacksonville, Florida, the stories take place in the not-too-distant past when dial-up internet, caller ID, pay phones and phone books were still a thing. The female protagonists at the center of Moniz’s stories are self-possessed and intelligent, but also flawed and searching for something from their partners, their mothers, their life choices, the world. Despite their missteps, they are admirable for being the kind of woman who, when a man tries to discount her because of her gender, is confident in the knowledge that she is the smartest person in the room.
In “The Loss of Heaven,” middle-aged Gloria has advanced lung cancer and has chosen to forgo treatment. While visiting the oncologist, her husband Fred quizzes the doctor on his wife’s options, and Gloria gets up and walks out the door. Fred finds her waiting for him in the car and asks why she left. “None of that had anything to do with me. All that was, was two men talking in a room,” she says.
Teenage Zey rebels against the sexist teachings of her evangelical church in “Tongues” because she’s smarter than anyone gives her credit for. “She knows the stories Pastor tells are ones he’s learned from other men, passed through generations like a plague&until they become mentality, these adopted laws from a blue-eyed, man-dreamt Heaven.”
Moniz demonstrates a remarkable insight into the secret life of adolescent girls. She knowingly describes a teenager as being “that special age where she knew both nothing and everything.” Her girls are willful and stubborn and insular.
Having not yet learned how to harness their powers, they cast destruction in their wakes with little thought to collateral damage because they don’t yet know what they don’t know.
In the titular short story “Milk Blood Heat,” 13-year-old friends Kiera and Ava are fixated on death.
It’s not that they’re depressed or suicidal; they are young and believe themselves to be immortal. And they simply have a morbid curiosity about what happens to a body when it meets a laundry list of gruesome ends: drowning in a bathtub, hanged from a tree limb, ground up in a meat grinder, buried underground.
But that’s not all. “It isn’t so much death that calls to Ava, but the curiosity of how her absence would affect the world.”
Their death play is all fun and games, like their afternoons spent terrorizing tadpoles and pretending to be supermodels, until one of the girls gets a lesson on the reality of loss and the permanence of forever.
In “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” Frankie is a wife and mother whose family has imploded because she almost had an affair. She is convinced the reason her teenage daughter Margot is giving her the silent treatment is because of her near transgression. But in fact, “Margot was mostly mad that her mother wanted something and didn’t take it, and the consequences were the same.”
Only later does Frankie realize her true transgression was not paying attention to what was going on in Margot’s life. Once Frankie is aware, she delivers retribution that is breathtaking in its cruelty but also wickedly funny.
Dualities runs through “Milk Blood Heat.” The love-hate dynamic common to marital relationships crops up in several stories. In “Necessary Bodies,” newly pregnant Billie is trying to decide whether or not to keep her baby. About her husband Liam she observes that, “Sometimes she despised her husband, but in that way you could only achieve with someone you’d lived with for a long time and deeply loved.”
In “Feast,” Rayna says of her husband Heath, “I hear an edge of worry in his voice, expertly mixed with a dash of irritation — our most common cocktail these days.” That line is so real and spot-on it’s hard not wince upon reading it.
Several stories share a fascination with corporeal concerns: bones, blood, cremains, menstrual flow. “Feast” is a particularly queasy tale that gets to the nitty-gritty of a miscarriage, the description of which is quite vivid.
But beyond that, even innocent descriptions are made grotesque.
About a child chewing a gum ball, Rayna says, “I watch her mouth become a red ruin as she chews, her small, perfect teeth smeared with candy blood.” But with every sick-inducing description, the reader moves closer to understanding Rayna’s pain.
The story collection runs the gamut of relationships. Motherdaughter wars get their due here, as do relationships with siblings and co-workers. There’s also a continuous undercurrent of interracial relationships that runs throughout.
Ultimately, what makes the girls and women in “Milk Blood Heat” so appealing and someone you want to spend time with is that they all have agency.
And while they might fumble around a bit and make mistakes — really bad mistakes sometimes — everything usually works out in the end. And in the process, Moniz pulls back the curtain on some of the more intimate complexities of the female experience and exposes it in all its messy splendor.