A short story collection recounts significant episodes in a young Michigan woman’s life.
In this book, which won the 2016 Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, Aitken (Writing/Univ. of Minnesota) gathers both new and previously published short stories into a singular anthology. The work centers on one character: Mary, a spirited writer and artist born in 1960s Detroit. Although each piece can stand entirely on its own, together these brief glimpses weave a rich tapestry of a life, incorporating themes of family and romance, work and destitution, inspiration and addiction, determination and loss. Even the simplest moments have a sense of gravitas and quiet beauty; for example, while remembering picking raspberries with her grandfather, Mary comments, “As with the seasons before, I had only to look his way and consider how his pale, steady hand coaxed the berries away from their inevitable fall.” Indeed, Mary’s complexity as a protagonist will make it easy for readers to forget the work’s fictional nature. Whether she’s struggling to find fulfillment in a career or attempting to navigate a romantic landscape full of bittersweet choices, her emotions resonate with aching familiarity. What makes her exceptional is the strength that she demonstrates in the face of adversity, including a partner who’s addicted to heroin, a family member succumbing to cancer, and her sobering realization, as a child, of the abductions and murders that plague the streets of her city. Aitken doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in these snapshots; instead, she thrusts them boldly into view: “When you reached Brooklyn via Detroit, you had other stories, ones of yearning, of forging ahead, of seizing and tasting every drop you had left. You fought, with everything, to live.” Overall, the author delivers these stories with poetic grace, resulting in a book that will linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page.
A moving work that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the human condition.