Review by Susan Muaddi Darraj
In “Disturbances,” Mr. Everett, a schoolteacher in a town called Togetherness – a town of 100 families who have formed their own enclave as a protest against the outside world – describes the reasons why that world is best forgotten: “It’s horrible! So horrible …. Children didn’t want to grow up to be anything other than famous. No one spoke to anyone. People spent all of their time playing with little gadgets. We lost our sense of each other, of why we were here in the first place.”
Of course, with her blazing prose, this is Amina Gautier critiquing our modern world, a world in which people replace anything they dislike about themselves – “New hair. New eye color. New anything.” – but on the inside, they are “hollow.” The condemnation of modern society is two-edged, however, as the utopia formed by the citizens of Togetherness falls apart as soon as one of its members deviates from their carefully crafted vision of happiness. The “deviation” is Mr. Everett’s inability to mask his grief over the loss of his wife and daughter.
In her newest collection of short stories, Gautier uses the loss of things -- of love, of marriages, and especially of children -- to remind us of what it is to be human. Her characters experience excruciating loss, but generally find that the rawness of their grief binds them to others in new ways. In “A Cup of My Time,” Sonali worries over a rare malady in her pregnancy – her twin boys are sharing a placenta, and should a planned life-saving surgery fail, she will have to choose which of the twins will survive. Her husband, despite his solicitousness and helpfulness, is not really connected to her. He avoids talking about the problem, the impending choice, and Sonali finds more solace in the chattering of her obnoxious, loud landlady who drops by for daily visits. The landlady, of course, is lonely in her own way, and this isolation feels familiar to Sonali. The visits of the landlady, so annoying to Sonali’s husband, are oddly comforting to her.
The most heart-wrenching incident of loss, however, is depicted in the opening story, “Lost and Found,” and its companion tale, “The Loss of All Lost Things.” In the former, a boy has been kidnapped and sexually molested by a stranger he calls “Thisman,” because he has never been told his name. Thisman insists that he is the boy’s father now, and the boy thinks, “Unlike his parents who woke him every day only to leave him – feeding him, dressing him, rushing him only to rid themselves of him, dropping him off with strangers paid to care, and later depositing him at school in a classroom full of other left-behind boys and girls, Thisman wants him near all the time.” The grief of the boy’s parents in depicted in the title story, and its opening line, “The posters go up immediately,” launches us into the mood of urgency surrounding the frantic, panicked couple. Gautier describes the terrifying process of searching, then waiting to hear of any news: “They count his absence in days, the way parents count the age of infants in months, hoping the incremental tallying will somehow make time slow down, make the seconds add up less quickly. … Thirty days. Seventy-five. One hundred twenty days and still counting. One hundred eighty days. Saying it that way makes it seem like so much less than half a year.”
Many other children are lost in these stories. Mr. Everett’s daughter has been taken by his wife, back to the outside world, and in retaliation, he attempts to claim anothers family’s daughter. In “What’s Best For You,” Bernice, a lonely librarian, is slowly losing connection with her daughter, who now hops into boys’ waiting cars and refuses to call Bernice “Mom.” In “Cicero Waiting,” a Latin teacher takes his daughter to Target and never sees her again: “One minute, she was near him, playing among a nearby rack of clothing, her head dwarfed by two-pieces on hangers, her feet visible. The next minute she wasn’t there. ...Ten weeks later, the police found his daughter’s body.” The father deals with his grief by avoiding his wife as much as possible, sensing that she must blame him, wishing she weren’t so kind and loving, hoping she will one day simply accuse him. It is her mercy that he cannot handle.
Gautier’s narrators are unforgettable – they simply drop a story on your lap like a piece of gossip. Consider the beginning of “What’s Best for You”: “Here is Bernice in mid-afternoon, filling a two-shelved cart with books checked out through Interlibrary Loan…. (There are some unkind souls who would call Bernice fat, but it’s all a matter of how you look at things.)” Or Sonali, who doesn’t understand the Punjabi that her landlady speaks: “My grandparents put it away like so much old luggage when they left Amritsar after the Partition. They never handed it down to my parents who never handed it down to me.” Here, even language has been lost, and with it, a sense of connection to her culture which the landlady partially restores.
Gautier draws her character with fine lines, bestowing upon them realistic details and personalities. Bernice the librarian becomes attracted to the custodian Harold, “with his sweet songs,” an auto-didact who photocopies pages of books he wants to read. There is Annette, in “Navigator of Culture,” who suspiciously eyes her former best friend, a woman who is back to visit the old neighborhood: “For your own self-respect, Hazel, please tell me you’re not here to fulfill some sort of nostalgic wish to get your hair done like you used to when you were a little girl.” Annette’s insight is dead-on: Hazel, the upper-class woman who hasn’t been back in years, regrets the way she was taught to look down upon the residents of this block, and Annette’s words force her to face her own hypocrisy. There is a part of her, something Hazel learned from her elitist mother, that makes her disdain these people, but also acknowledge that she never felt more connected to anyone else more than she felt to them.
Gautier has earned several laurels for this newest collection, including the Elixir Press Fiction Award and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award. Her stories are a commentary on the isolation of the human condition, and the way that small acts of mercy can bind us together again. A marvelous, engrossing read.
Susan Muaddi Darraj is the author of A Curious Land: Stories from Home, which won the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction and an American Book Award. She teaches at Harford Community College in Maryland and is a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program.