Twelve stories that probe the long shadow of trauma, whether historical or familial.
We are all products of our pasts; the wounded children we were shape the adults we become. Toronto-born writer Levine (Blue Field, 2017, etc.) has the most success exploring this idea in her more conventional, character-driven stories such as "The Association" and "As Such," which both feature Martin. In the first, Martin is just 11, a computer whiz who is navigating his parents' divorce and his mother's controlling personality. (She gives him two Bengal cats but makes him keep them in a tiny bathroom.) In the second, grown-up Martin, now a successful scientist married to a composer, still struggles with the "boy-shithead" he used to be. His efforts to silence that angry childish voice are affecting, and we understand why he freaks out over his husband's desire to have a child. Elsewhere, however, some of Levine's characters are so cold and nasty it's difficult to care about them (or the stories) even when we learn about their troubled pasts. Em, a hospice counselor, inwardly mocks the dying and their families even while she's supposedly ministering to them ("The Riddles of Aramaic"), and Eddie, a venomous old Jewish man, reflects without much regret on the harm he caused his wife and daughter ("Death and the Maidens"). Levine has a poet's command of language. Her taut, musical sentences make some of the stories' small details exquisite. In "This Wicked Tongue," which follows a young woman on a religious journey, a donkey "twitches his flied flank," a "thrush throats," and "a spider webs her prey." Sometimes, however, Levine's restraint is too severe, and her characters feel insubstantial and ultimately unknowable.
A stylish, experimental collection, but readers might yearn for Levine to show more compassion for her damaged characters.