Debut Short Story Collections Unearth the Dark Underbellies of Relationships
CLAIMING A BODY
By Amanda Marbais 164 pp. Moon City. Paper, $14.95.
Björn in “Fourteener” is haunted by the suspicious death of the friend his parents helped raise. Jake was a climber, an outsider in their moneyed circle who matched their bratty insouciance with ease, and yet at times “still acted indebted to Björn, as if they were unequal friends.” Björn tried to settle the balance by letting Jake have the girl they both liked, Hailey, who was on the mountain with Jake when he “jumped,” so she says, to his death. Björn suspects that’s not the full story, but he makes out with her anyway; “he wanted to stop, salvage his pride, but couldn’t,” so desperate is he for Hailey — and everyone — “to think he was decent.”
The high school boy in “Faker” cheats on his girlfriend, Zoe, with her friend Amy, who sends Zoe a photo as proof. Zoe launches a campaign of destruction against both the boy and Amy, after which the girls appear to reconcile. When Zoe persuades him to take them both to homecoming, he “did not get it,” but doesn’t care enough about the girls to question it, relating to them primarily as he would fantasy objects. That night, the three of them drive to a pond and the two girls go swimming. The premise almost leads to tragedy. In the moments afterward, the boy longs for some kind of confession from Amy: “I thought she was going to share an intimate memory … I needed to hear something like that.” When all she says is that she feels “like a ghost,” he admits he does too.
164 pp. Moon City. Paper, $14.95.
SABRINA & CORINA
By Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Having been taught from an early age that beauty and femininity attract harm, the women in these fierce and essential stories are never truly surprised by the brutality of the men around them. Friends, sisters and mothers are often implicated by their failures to protect the doomed women, who move inexorably toward their fates.
When the young woman in “Sisters” is set up with the man who will eventually assault and maim her, she’s immediately filled with dread. Menace permeates their first date: Missing-person fliers litter the drive-in; the man exhibits a cruel streak. “She couldn’t place the emotion’s origins within herself, but she watched carefully as Joey breathed with his mouth slightly open, spit shining across his square teeth.” When her ambivalence toward him threatens to unmask a difficult truth, she conforms to her sister’s wishes, also temporarily disengaging her survival instincts.
In Fajardo-Anstine’s collection, history always resurfaces, and the landscape mirrors the cycles at play in the characters’ lives. After ancient skeletons are unearthed by neighborhood boys, a teenage girl’s estranged mother returns to the family home. The girl enacts an erratic pattern of nurture and neglect upon the bag of sugar she is jointly parenting for a class assignment, whispering to it: “I don’t know if I’m very nice to you.”
In the title story, a cosmetician prepares her cousin’s body for burial while tracing her descent into the grave alongside the decline of their friendship. They had once been so close they had argued about which of them had actually felt the pain of a bee sting in their shared earliest memory. As teenagers they had studied their reflections in the full-length mirrors hanging on the four walls of their grandmother’s bathroom. “My grandmother believed every woman needed to know how she looked from any angle … to know how the rest of the world viewed us.” The image of the two girls observing themselves in their grandmother’s mirrors, and hoping to emerge somehow as women in control of how the world perceives them, would seem to represent the feminine agency, legacy and kinship that govern the hearts of every character in this book.
212 pp. One World. $26.
By Xuan Juliana Wang
In these tough, luminous stories about destiny, fealty, belonging and heartbreak, every good thing comes at a price. Each character gets something he or she wants, but only by sacrificing something he or she needs.
“Vaulting the Sea” charts the bond between two boys whose bodies and futures are claimed and entwined by the state: “Once they were assigned as each other’s partner in synchronized diving, every moment of their lives was the same.” The opening image — “in the air, they were one body reflected in a mirror” — haunts us as the story unfolds and we learn what it’s like to crave a body you already share, and might never escape. As the boys grow up, the power balance shifts irreparably, one wanting to remove himself entirely from the other’s life, in order “to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.” Wang unpacks unwieldy relationships with a light touch, slicing cleanly through the intricacies to render them instantly familiar.
Wang’s writing is sensory, cinematic and fluid. In “Days of Being Mild,” an affluent, talentless drifter and his broke and talented friends shoot a music video during his last days in Beijing, from where he will soon emigrate to Louisiana to manage his father’s oil fields. Itself resembling a music video, the story begins in a speeding car and accelerates through shots of the friends aimlessly floating in and out of love (one watches his ex kiss her new girlfriend “as if he’s witnessing an eclipse”), interspersed with atmospheric stills of the city (“the misty mournful day is illuminated by the pollution that makes Beijing’s light pop, extending the slow orange days”). The closing scene is overlaid with lyrics from the music video they just shot, as the narrator collects his L-1 investment visa from the American Embassy (“secretly building the bridge on which to leave them”) and recalls with tenderness the time before his father made his money, when the ferry his family rode to the shops capsized, describing the ensuing chaos as “those brief moments of ecstasy.”
227 pp. Hogarth. $25.