The stories in Caitlin Horrocks’s masterful debut collection, This Is Not Your City (Sarabande, $15.95), start in familiar places and go into deftly imagined elsewheres. A woman feels uneasy while expecting her first child. Why? Because she can remember her own and others’ previous incarnations and recognizes the old soul in the new baby. A story in the form of a term paper shifts yet again to become a high school senior’s poignant autobiography, documenting her mother’s illness and the family’s poverty. A couple on a cruise is by turns childless and the parents of a brood of overachievers—both smokescreens to deflect inquiries about their only son, born severely brain damaged. When pirates board the ship, it’s the least of the dramas going on here. Other characters find love, but not understanding, and work doggedly at jobs or relationships despite ambivalence. Widely published in the top literary journals, Horrocks, whose prose carves a clear, sharp picture of people of all ages and of places from the American Midwest to Finland, is a writer to watch.
Who are we without our memories? From South Africa to China, Wyoming to Lithuania, the disparate stories in Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall are linked by their ability to capture the pathos of the human condition in stunning prose. In “Village 113,” a rural Chinese village is marked as one of hundreds to be destroyed in a man-made flood of the Yangtze River. The seed-keeper of the village must make the painful choice either to move to the city where her son, a government official instrumental in the village’s destruction, lives disconnected from his past, or stay in the only home she’s ever known and drown. The fifteen-year-old orphaned evangelical narrator of “The River Nemunas” is sent to live with her grandfather in Lithuania, where she struggles to hold onto memories of her mother by tracing the river paths her mother took as a young child. In the collection’s beautiful title story, the lives of three South Africans are irrevocably linked by the legacies of apartheid and the greater arc that draws us together: our humanity borne through our memories.
The Saints And Sinners in Edna O'Brien's latest collection are mostly downtrodden Irish folk caught in an unforgiving world where grace is the exception, not the rule. The narrator in "Madame Cassandra" is desperate for information about what she already knows—that her husband is cheating on her with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter—and seeks out a fortuneteller to deliver the news. When, by chance, the narrator and her husband meet on the train as he returns from his illicit rendezvous, a kernel of hope is sewn into the final paragraphs. In "Inner Cowboy" a mentally disabled man runs up against a greedy real-estate developer, and the unexpected turns and quick pacing intensify the heartbreaking ending. In my favorite of the collection, "Green Georgette," an impoverished young girl and her mother unwillingly provide cover for a wealthy woman's affair with the local doctor, and the girl's mounting rage symbolically explodes into violence. O'Brien's spare yet lyric language hypnotizes.