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SUBURBAN GOTHIC by Margaret F. Chen Kirkus Star


by Margaret F. Chen

Pub Date: Feb. 26th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-62429-252-1
Publisher: OPUS

A collection of short stories probes the anxieties of life in suburban America.

What makes the suburbs so unsettling? Perhaps it’s the expectation of tranquility and order that, once upset, highlights the troubles stirring beneath the surface. In one tale, a kite caught in a tree becomes a metaphor for a single mother’s mistaken attempt to move back to her hometown. In another story, a woman comes home to find a terrible, monstrous creature sitting in her driveway. She seeks help from two friends, a pair of twin sisters, but her visit to their house devolves into a literal nightmare. In a third, a protective mother puts her child in preschool after failing to find him an acceptable babysitter. But there’s something strange about the other kids there: Why do they just sit and stare like zombies? “Nina was outraged,” begins another tale, the ominously titled “Mullet.” “ ‘I toldher!’ she shouted, grabbing fistfuls of her hair, ‘I wanted a layered bob with bangs! And look, look, lookat this! What isthis!’ ” In these 15 stories, Chen reveals that distress and unease are never far from the minds of her characters, lurking behind white picket fences and insincere smiles. The tales are a mix of shorter pieces that tend toward the surreal and longer, more realistic narratives. Both are enjoyable but the latter more so, particularly “The Zhangs and the Zumans.” The story follows a married couple who return to the house where they used to live, which they now rent out. The house has changed, but what is really striking is that the neighbors—whose antics caused the couple to move in the first place—seem different as well. Here, the wife, Annie, views her former neighbor’s abode as though it were a haunted house: “Although she tried to stop herself, Annie began to fix her gaze upon the large house, as if a magnetic force gravitated forth from its many black windows, pulling her very eyeballs, it seemed, right out of their sockets and towards the walls of staring, glassy recesses.” The author’s prose is exact and taut, building a sense of unease in a way that is so subtle the audience will often fail to realize it until it finally breaks. Readers should look forward to more books from Chen in the future.

Tense, skillfully crafted, and illuminating tales of suburban desperation.