September 2011

J. T. Hill

fiction

This Is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks

"I wonder if it would help to get out of Des Moines," says one of the eleven female protagonists in This Is Not Your City, Caitlin Horrocks's debut collection. Her suggestion of a geographical cure is fleeting and halfhearted, a solution no more effective than switching toothpastes, but all the more affecting for the narrator's awareness of what she can't leave behind. The struggle to balance change with acceptance is at the heart of the other ten stories, and the subtle ways in which a Russian mail-order bride, a couple on a hijacked cruise ship, a foundering school teacher, and all the other protagonists complement one another makes This Is Not Your City much more than a collection of terrific stories.

In "Embodied," the story set in Des Moines, the narrator is living her 127th life as an internal auditor and pregnant wife of a fourth-grade teacher named Murray. From the story's first lines, we learn the sad fate of their child, but the surprising details come gradually. Her husband indulges her belief in the past lives, perhaps sharing them, but doesn't share his wife's dread at the upcoming birth of their son. So intense is her foreboding that she "[hopes] for a monster, for something limbless, hopeless, so damaged no one would ask me to carry it to term." Some readers will call her delusional -- a logical diagnosis for someone who believes in past lives -- but her emotions, and possibly her actions, are utterly credible in Horrocks's hands.

Horrocks expertly grounds dramatic, potentially outlandish plots with precise, recognizable emotions. Like Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, she has a talent for finding the heartbreaking quotidian detail. In the title story, one of the diamonds in a collection of gems, Daria has left behind an unfulfilling life in Russia to become the mail-order bride of a perfectly kind, perfectly ordinary, wholly unfulfilling husband in Finland. On top of that, Daria's daughter has gone missing, news requiring a pair of dictionaries for the policemen to translate. As wrenching as the story becomes when we learn the outcome of this crisis -- it's not what you might guess -- the reader best understands Daria and her pain in the small moment while she is cleaning the apartment. Dusting the Venetian blinds, she cuts her fingers in three places, "leaves a streak of blood on the slat closest to the ceiling. She likes hiding a part of herself in the apartment, as if it is a claim to the space, a promise that she will not have to leave it, although her entire life has taught her otherwise."

The women in Horrocks's stories are alienated, isolated, fearful, confused, and usually some combination of each. What they are not is whiny, helpless, or unsympathetic. Her characters understand the role they have played in their own unhappiness, inscrutable as the unhappiness may seem. At the very least, they seek their own change, realizing the world won't change for them. Some do attempt the geographical cure. In "Going to Estonia," Ursula leaves her home and her parents to find a more complicated, not necessarily better world than the one she departed. In "Lion Gate," an office worker finds fleeting joy with a much younger fellow tourist, who turns out to be in worse emotional shape than she is. It's worth noting that the stories set in foreign countries, not only the ones featuring vacationers but the ones with characters living in Finland or Estonia, are no less vivid or lived-in than the pieces set in the American Midwest.

The stories are distinctive enough that readers won't agree on which ones are the most memorable, but another of my favorites is "In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui," set on a cruise ship taken over by Somali pirates. Don't expect gun barrels pointed at the throats of gasping oldsters. Horrocks, as always, takes the subtler route, letting the drama swell below the surface. The main characters, parents of a severely disabled child left at home, remain in their room for the duration of the hijacking, writing postcards to their child who will never read them, waiting for updates from the artificially cheerful cruise ship employee. As sharply as their life at home is defined, it's understandable why they would want to lose track of land for a while. It also makes sense when the end of the ordeal feels like the opposite of relief.

Some of the early stories may initially feel smaller and less resonant than others in the second half of the book. But the pieces set in the Midwest, which feature young women navigating ambivalence about love and careers, are no less successful than the others, and one comes to appreciate them even more as parts of the whole. Ultimately, what is so impressive about This Is Not Your City, in addition to the rare wisdom and precisely observed behavior, is the thematic unity on par with a great concept album, or a novel-in-stories.

While one of the unquestioned pleasures of the novel is the cumulative effect of time spent with the same characters and conflicts, a pleasure simulated in collections of stories with recurring characters, Caitlin Horrocks manages this feat with eleven unique stories whose characters and plots never overlap. As satisfying as each piece is by itself, they become more so amid layers of thematic connections. The author explores alienation and uncertainty with consistent nuance. The stories echo one another while moving forward into new territory, echoes that, in a different form, might sound more like repetition.

This Is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 978-1932511918
224 pages