shining the spotlight on short story collections
“We do bad things and think bad things. That’s why human beings can’t fly without a machine, because we are still too full of everyday badness. The balloon reminds you to always be good.”
The word I think of when I think of this collection is “cusp”. Every character in the eleven stories in this first collection set in rural Minnesota and then ranging over to San Francisco is poised on the cusp of a terrifying or exciting edge, but make no mistake, he or she might fly or fall, but is rendered breathtakingly alive. Young adults on the verge of discovering what lies ahead, ride the cusp of adulthood only to lie on snowy ground surrounded by pecking turkeys and turkey shit and sense that life and what it has to offer can make them flawed and desperately unhappy individuals (La Maison de Madame Durard). Lovers ricochet against the limits of love, a teenager discovers how far she is willing to go as she traverses the line between desire and infatuation towards her cousin (Country Girls); a farmer on the brink of mental insanity enumerates his burdens (“42 cows, 3 calves, 25 chickens, 4 fields, 6 children, 1 wife”) only to find unexpected solace in nature’s offering (Mr. Hellerman’s Vacation); a middle-aged lesbian circles the rim of heartbreak after her lover leaves, and finds comfort in rediscovering her own mother (Mother). One of the most stunning lines comes from this story, its utter debasement and humility laid bare, “This is what she’s come to, she thinks: a thirty-three year old woman who lies face down at her mother’s feet.”
These characters search for meaning, desperately, unremittingly. When they find meaning, it doesn’t always come in a palatable form. Take Manny, the sixth-grader in Wide Like an Eagle’s Wings who’d been elected secretary of the JFK campaign at her elementary school. Manny’s longing is existential; she craves meaning, to be bigger and more important than the existence she suspects confronts her, growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. But her longing takes a premonitory, hell-bound nose-dive when later that afternoon, her four-year-old sister drowns in the river and Manny is unable to save her. Manny’s existence is forever rendered meaningful, but poignantly and heartbreakingly not what she’s envisioned. Or Marc, dying of Aids in The Fifth Season, and his plangent cry, “I haven’t done anything important yet and now I’m going to degrade myself [sic] Oh god, it makes me feel sick – Lorrie, you’re not going to write about it, are you?”
Writing about it is the only antidote, it seems. And Nona Caspers does it in quietly unassuming prose and deceptively simple narratives. With her finger firmly fixed on the pulse of each heartbeat in these stories, Caspers is infinitely compassionate and revealing in her details, and the moments of dark comedy captured here leaven what’s already a compelling read.
Read excerpts from stories from this collection on NonaCaspers.com
About the reviewer: Elaine Chiew lives in London, England with her husband and two children. She began her career as a corporate lawyer specializing in securities before deciding to become a full-time mom and writer. Her work has appeared in Verbsap, juked, The Summerset Review, In Posse Review, among others. Her story in In Posse Review was a Top Ten Notable Story in Storysouth’s Million Writer’s Award, 2006