Gustine’s debut collection examines the compelling lives and struggles of people we might think of as ordinary and the pain that can come from simply trying to make it through life.
It might be easy to mistake these stories, with their focus on the familiar, for quiet ones. The emphasis is largely on emotion and situation rather than drama, but this doesn’t detract from their power. In fact, the intensity of people we might pass on the street every day—a mother whose baby will not stop crying or a father driving across the country to clean out his dead daughter’s apartment—makes this collection all the more powerful. In “An Uncontaminated Soul,” for example, Gustine starts with a familiar picture of a woman living alone with more than 50 cats, but rather than creating a cliché, she instead makes Lavinia sympathetic, deep, and heartbreaking—not pitiful at all. The struggle mothers face in trying to protect their children is one theme that runs throughout this collection, and it links an Israeli woman whose adult son has been kidnapped by Hamas to an Ohio woman conducting nightly vigils in her backyard, armed with a child’s baseball bat against encroaching coyotes. The weakest moments come in stories that prioritize suspense, as in “Goldene Medene,” in which a doctor inspects incoming immigrants at Ellis Island. He handles infectious patients with a distracted air and imagines abusing his power to take advantage of a vulnerable woman in a way that feels tired. There is no easy resolution to be found in this collection, and the fact that life will, and indeed must, go on is both a blessing and a burden for the characters.
Gustine’s stories give the impression that in every life there is a story worth telling, of triumph and of pain, if only we take the time to look.