Isabel Yap’s Never Have I Ever is an outstanding collection of short fiction that smoothly transitions between spaces where elements of horror, surrealism, and folklore reside. Yap’s stories come at readers with the straightforwardness of a real conversation, which is a testament to the author’s storytelling skills. However, once they get going, they always peel off a few layers to reveal something incredible—or incredibly dark, mysterious, or strange—that’s living right beneath the surface.
The stories in Never Have I Ever show great range in terms of what Yap brings in from a plethora of genres. One of the strongest elements of cohesion is atmosphere. Yap sets this up early, hinting at what’s to come with this line from “Good Girls,” the opening story: “Humans make up wonderfully intricate rituals, pretend to have such control—but they easily devolve into animal longing, just heartbeats flaring in their cage of skin and bones.”
And the darkness of “Good Girls” goes well beyond that line. The story follows a girl stuck at the Bakersfield Good Girl Reformation Retreat, where young girls daily recite the retreat’s pledge: “I’m a good girl. A good girl for a good world. And while I know it is not always easy to be good, I promise to at least try.” However, while these girls try to be good, there are things inside each of them—and inside each of us—that can’t be tamed with a pledge, or even with the will to be good.
The stories in Never Have I Ever are like fairytales with a dark core. “A Cup of Salt Tears,” for example, is the story of a young woman who’s regularly visited by a kappa while her husband dies in a hospital. While some stories have a dash of humor, others have an emotional grittiness that makes their genre largely irrelevant––they entertain and offer escapism like the best short fiction, but they primarily engage the heart. This one belongs to that group.
Perhaps the collection’s crowning jewel is “A Spell for Foolish Hearts,” the fourth story (although I think it’s long enough to be called a novelette). The tale of a gay man with magical powers struggling to find love, using potions, and simultaneously navigating his family, a budding relationship, and his sexuality, this story walks a wild line between an LGBTQ+ love story with some fun magic thrown in and a dark tale about suffering and the misunderstandings that lead to heartbreak. It kicks off with what’s perhaps the collection’s most memorable opening lines:
The Rulebook for Witches had over 300 entries, but Aunt Gemma stressed only three:
1. Tend to your jar of blackberries.
2. Beware men’s hearts; never let them be your master.
3. The shape of things can be deceptive.
While that sense of fun and magic carry through the rest of the narrative, things get serious later, and homosexuality and family acceptance take center stage. The main character’s struggles to be accepted, to be loved unconditionally, lead to some of the collection’s most direct and heart wrenching prose:
I would only like to kiss boys, and fuck boys, and be fucked by boys, and it has taken me forever to reach this conclusion, and for the longest time I thought saying this didn’t matter, and a part of me still thinks maybe it doesn’t. But a larger part of me has just gotten tired of hiding this, and not flinching away at every mention of it, and pretending that I’m not what I am. I’ve come here. This far. This far and I am still turned away, at this gate, this shore, I cannot cross, Mom, I’ve gotten this far and you still can’t see me. I have carried myself here and I am at your feet.
“A Spell for Foolish Hearts” is a great example of how Yap centers Otherness in all her tales. Being, or feeling, like an outsider—whether it has to do with your family, your ethnicity, or sexuality—is a recurring theme in Never Have I Ever. However, the beauty here is that Yap never centers Otherness in order to make it the story; she centers because it is the place her characters inhabit. Also, it never gets in the way of the fun or the creepy stuff.
The second thing that makes this an outstanding collections is Yap’s writing itself. These are all relatively long short stories, with 13 tales taking up more than 300 pages. However, they all move forward at breakneck speed and there are no dull moments or unnecessary filler passages. The descriptions are rich, but Yap’s economy of language makes them easy to digest. Take the opening of “Canticle for Girls,” which closes the collection:
Andy’s eyes are humongous. There’s a deep dimple on one of her cheeks. She’s incredibly cute, and I don’t think that just ’cause she’s mine. The only thing I don’t like about her is she has this slight manipulative streak, like when she calls me Mommy or Ray Daddy. Lilting, sweet. Ray always falls for it. I try not to. Is it cruel to think of your own child this way, to be suspicious of her? But I’m suspicious of everyone.
Or, better yet, one of many paragraphs in “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?,” in which readers get a few versions of the death of a girl (each one more morbid that the previous one, and all of the part of the local folklore):
Anamaria Marquez was a student at St. Brebeuf ’s, just like us. One day she stayed after school to finish a project. At that time the gardener was a creepy manong, and when he saw her staying in the classroom all by herself he raped her. Then, because he did not want anyone to know about his crime, he killed her and hid her body in the hollow of the biggest rubber tree in the Black Garden. Nobody found out what had happened to her until after the manong died, when finally a storm knocked over the rubber tree—that was years ago, it’s grown back now, duh—and the police found her bones.
With its combination of diverse characters, various geographies, nods to mythology and folklore, and different genre elements, Never Have I Ever is a wildly entertaining collection of touching, eerie stories that showcase Yap’s range. It also has the kind of dark core you can’t look away from, partly because you want to spend more time in that world and partly because you’re afraid of what might happen if you do.