A captivating debut collection probes the trauma of being human.
In 15 assured, haunting, and deeply empathetic stories, Hoagland imagines characters struggling with loss and beset by a disquieting, persistent sense of the fragility of life. A mother reacts to her parents’ wartime deaths by reverting to childhood, shrinking until she becomes “a tiny shape” requiring care from her adolescent daughter. A young woman stunned by her teenage brother’s suicide wishes she had seen warning signs. “I’m still just stuck as the unfruitful, albeit disappointed survivor,” she admits, as she replays her last conversations with her brother, innocuous exchanges filled with “idioms, clichés, old wives’ words.” A father, realizing he cannot protect his maturing daughter from harm, wishes his world could remain “intact,” like “an uncut peach.” Like many of Hoagland’s characters, he feels overcome by “the shape of loss he was afraid may someday loom over him.” A few of the 15 stories, most previously published in literary journals, evoke the slyly surreal worlds of Lydia Davis: “American Family Portrait, Clockwise From Upper Right” depicts ghosts, “gendered remains, hollowed beauty, amazing absence,” and a mother’s “head tilt of love.” In “Six and Mittens,” the narrator, diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, reveals her imaginary friends, who sometimes erupt like “a noise in your brain that hurts,” and describes in chilling detail the fierce conflict between her parents, at “wit’s end” over how to treat her illness. Several characters have been traumatized by violence: An elderly woman recalls her complicity in the execution of witches in 17th-century Salem; a dinner guest recalls an Aztec feast that devolves into bloodshed; an Iraq War veteran and a woman whose parents died in a murder-suicide confront the unlikely possibility of becoming “a normal, happy couple.” In their quiet revelations, Hoagland’s characters give voice to the disquieting fears and dark secrets that, as one character puts it, produce “heartbreaking revisions of our world.”
Intimate portraits of loneliness and longing.