For several days after that she’d felt frightened and out of place, as if she’d woken up in a world that looked like hers, but upon closer inspection was more like the props to a play, with hidden gears grinding behind paper-thin doors and windows without glass.” ~The River Warta
These eleven stories follow ordinary people, navigating their lives through good and bad, looking back on childhoods and making sense on their current situations. A reoccurring theme is the relationship between parents and children all being very insightful, poignant with humor and tragedy alike.
The stories are simple yet complex with layers of literary goodness, three dimensional characters and even the minor characters that appear in the background play a strong part. Just as in life. Gustine not only has a way with words and character development, but I found her use of dialogue some of the best I’ve read.
“All the Sons of Cain” follow R’s mother through Gaza and she desperately searches for her missing son. It’s agonizing and hopeful.
“Like a prisoner herself-a prisoner of uncertainty, of history, of other people’s prejudice-she spend her time reading old novels, their familiar stories a great comfort. No more surprises.” ~All the Sons of Cain
“Unattended” follows Joanne who is not quite cut out for motherhood. She herself, didn’t have the best role model, but finds that the very smallest, unexpected gestures are everything. It bothered me as I read it, a sense of dread looming, and then Gustine punches you in the gut at the end. You think it’s going in one direction and then BAM! It reminded me of Dept. of Speculation a bit with it’s brutal honesty about motherhood.
“You Should Pity Us Instead”, another favorite, is mostly about Simon and Molly, atheists in Ohio trying to figure out how to explain life, death and uncertainties to their children in a small town where most are religious. Good friends of theirs have an adopted son named Adoo from South America, and I loved this quote about his assimilation into their small town:
The modern world will swallow him. Maybe not at fourteen, or eighteen or twenty. But it will. Does that mean they should have left him in the jungles of Peru? It seems to her if you don’t belong where you’re born, you’ll never belong anywhere.” ~You Should Pity Us Instead
That’s what Gustine does. She’s a short story literary genius. Just when you think the story is about one thing, it’s also about another, and another. In that quote it’s about Adoo not fitting in, but also Molly and her children, and the other religions in their neighborhood, and all the different cultures and goes on and on. Assimilating on all levels and in different situations of life.
The first quote is from “The River Warta” which had the same affect on me as “Unattended”. Sucker. Punch. It reminded me of the movie “The War of the Roses”, without the humor of Danny DeVito.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t make this a long post but they are all so, so good. I found myself wanting to savor the words and the unfolding of each story but also rushing to see what would happen. I had to pause between each one and digest the brilliance before plunging into the next. The last two, “When We’re Innocent” and “Half-Life” are strong endings to this collection and I just had to mention them. Both have parallel stories and as a reader you don’t really know where they are going and how they will end. You might be upset, left hanging, surprised, relieved…all of it. I will tell you that all of them don’t end with a neat little bow and I loved it. Such is life.
Sorry for the long ramble, but here is a great quote I found on brazosbookstore.com while interviewing Gustine which sums up the collection nicely (and much more succinctly):
“It focuses on situations where advice cannot be given, when all someone can do is answer the phone when it rings and offer witness of a situation instead.”
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine is a debut collection of eleven stories that is 256 pages published by Sarabande Book on February 9, 2016. They have been previously published in several literary journals but you should do like I did and pick up a copy from your local library. Now I will buy my own copy so I can put all the flags back in.