December 2013

Heather Partington

fiction

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce

Kelly Luce's debut collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, is a pleasing mix of fantasy and delicate, intricate description, a tiny volume bursting with stories representing a deft sense of timing, imagination and wit. Luce sets these tales in Japan, in a slightly alternate reality that pushes boundaries of what is possible, and offers winking suggestions about what might have been.

Luce's characters are real, familiar. Or are they? There is the literal play on tails and the tale in "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," equal parts story about a honeymooning couple and mystical water demon legend. This idea of the tail surfaces again in the title story, "Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail," which itself is another wink at the idea of interpretation. Luce plays with language and meaning, and she lets us in on her fun.

It is the variation of these stories, though, the balance of humor and sadness and structure that make Hana Sasaki such a pleasure to read. The world of Luce's characters is one where toasters can foretell a character's death and the "Amorometer" can measure one's "lovingcapacity." In the hands of a lesser writer, perhaps these contrivances would feel trite. It is a testament to Luce's storytelling that her imaginative writing underscores a deeper kind of emotional truth for her characters, rather than trivializing it. Luce's use of magical realism engenders a kind of emotional truth that feels more real than perhaps a strict literal truth.

Death and grief play as much of a part in her collection as love, and the balance of emotion that runs throughout the book lend it gravitas. In "Rooey," a tale about the transformative powers of death and guilt, Luce opens with the line, "Since Rooey died, I'm no longer myself." On its face, the line is a passing glance, the kind of thing most of us say as a throwaway, but Luce thrives in subtlety.

While the deacon said things like, "The Lord takes first whom he loves best" and "To die young is a blessing," images of that day slideshowed through my mind -- Rooey's head, just above the water, snapping back on his neck, Rooey's eyes wide and black as he looked at me the last time, while I treaded water a few feet away. I wondered if he knew he was dying, that when he closed his eyes on the pain, they would never reopen. I thought of this as the deacon droned, as my mother's pale jaw clenched and unclenched, her eyes like ice -- she had not cried yet -- and I stood up in the pew and whispered "Bullshit."

Rather than just exploring death and its aftereffects, this story asks the reader questions about the blurry line between empathy and sympathy, about "taking on" the guilt of something versus becoming something entirely different out of grief. "Rooey" is just one example of how Luce shines, particularly in carrying a hint of mysticism to the end of a story.

Luce's characters are often caught in situations where they're confronted with loss, or with their displacement or imprisonment in situations that they cannot control. Relationships are strongholds, but they are also sometimes bonds that can't be escaped. In "Ash," Luce writes of a character who is falsely imprisoned for bike theft, and held captive until she signs a false confession. Upon her release, she meets a woman, Eiko, who says, "There's a lot that's unexplainable. When you feel alone, so many things become possible."

"Yes, I can do anything," she thinks, "even things that I don't want to do." "Ash" is a story of displacement, of Americans living in Japan for a year and of one woman's brief imprisonment. But the way this experience sticks with her and changes her family is indicative of how Luce's other characters are shaped by moments, too. In "Pioneers," "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," and "Amorometer," Luce also explores this idea of the connections between us, and what keeps us where we are. Luce seems to want us to consider how we keep a hold on each other, and why.

"Amorometer" plays on this idea of connection, mixing allusions to Anna Karenina with the magic of a machine that can read one's capacity to love. Aya leaves her hometown to meet Shinji: "Aya had insisted on coming to Tokyo. The person she was hoping to become could not exist in Iida; she could only transform with distance. And though it terrified her to think of herself lost on the streets of an unfamiliar place, she felt certain that once she arrived, she could be anyone she wanted."

Though the allusions to Tolstoy give the story an undercurrent of foreboding, it is ultimately Aya's transformation -- like that of Luce's other characters -- in a world just slightly different from reality that strikes the deepest chord.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a pleasing read, one that hits highs and lows and shows skilled attention to clever detail. Kelly Luce makes her mark by creating a world that gives her access to deep emotional truth and offers her the opportunity to tell stories that are interesting and fresh.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce
A Strange Object
ISBN: 978-0989275914
135 pages