In this collection of short stories, a varied cast of characters navigates the trauma of trying to reconcile past with present.
Some tales in Kasten’s (Better Days, 2013, etc.) collection address the ways in which lives in lands that are literally foreign to one another elude harmony. Professor Li Da-Ming weathers the overwhelming task of pursuing a competitive job opportunity in America while past horrors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution stir within him. An old woman finds herself flooded by memories of the Guatemalan civil war and the Mayan ruins of Tikal while babysitting in America. In one particularly breathtaking story, a boy growing up in World War II-ravaged Germany longs to be a soldier until, years later, he goes to war in Vietnam and is confronted by the “dazed, numb, animal stupidity” of doing so. Other tales are not immigrant stories, but they do address the ways in which past lives are rendered foreign lands by present disturbances. A Midwestern man and his family embark on the same trip he took to New Mexico as a bachelor and despairs when it fails to go as planned. An American veteran watches his cancer-ridden wife approach death and becomes hounded by memories of unprocessed loss. An old man joins a writing workshop and—unanticipatedly—revisits a heartbreaking childhood episode that he cannot bring himself to put on paper. As a whole, the collection swells with heart-rending tension. Kasten’s decision to allow these traumatic stories to find space in her prose—which is lovely and richly detailed—but not necessarily in the exterior lives of the formidably diverse characters is affecting. Further, the author’s expanse of historical knowledge is impressive. The opportunity to dip into an intimate day in the life of each pocket of history she writes about becomes an engrossing adventure for readers. That said, many of the tales’ endings feel either hastened, unfinished, or as if they are working too hard to make story titles relevant, an authorial maneuver that sells these otherwise powerful works short.
A historically rich chronicling of private suffering across time, strata, and space.