Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2011. 163 pages. $15.95.
Caitlin Horrocks has chops. In her debut collection of short stories, This Is Not Your City, there are sensitively rendered characters, nimble shifts in points of view, and a diversity of voices that lends the collection an air of uncommon maturity. Characters are forced to navigate lives frightening and hostile, like Lyssa in “Small Steal,” who makes her life with Leo, a man who works at a slaughterhouse and who adopts pet dogs to sell them for medical testing. “If this is what I get in this world I’ll take it,” she says. There are also: pirates, reincarnation, a mail-order bride, a fairytale kingdom, and a time machine. Caitlin Horrocks has chops, but she also has imagination, and this combination makes for a remarkably even collection of what otherwise appear to be disparate stories.
This Is Not Your City is a book of stories about women in exile. Some of the women are exiled from childhood, teetering on the cusp of adulthood. Many of the women are trapped by their own decisions, by the hurt they’ve caused. In “Small Steal,” Lyssa abides the suffering of the dogs Leo has acquired because of her own failure to intervene when her sister was abused by a neighbor. She says, “I bet Leo’d never find anyone else who can listen to dogs cry the way I can.” In “Embodied,” an Iowa accountant on her 127th life begins to hate her baby after she recognizes its soul from a previous life. In “Zolaria,” a mother is haunted by a fairytale she invented with a childhood friend.
These characters, so isolated by their guilt, could easily be unlikable, but Horrocks denies us safe distance, instead bringing us so fully into the characters’ worlds that empathy is inevitable. The characters in this collection have a rare lack of self-pity. In “Small Steal,” when Lyssa’s boyfriend needs a tetanus shot but instead insists he’s fine, she says, “because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.” In “Zero Conditional,” a directionless young woman takes a temporary job as a teacher. When she is unable to control her students, she doles out increasingly cruel punishments: “It made her feel powerless, to hate someone so small, thin, fragile people who could not even tie shoes correctly, who ate pudding snacks and played kickball and whose handwriting was clumsy, unpracticed. . . . Who, even so, would not respect her and would not listen.” What saves these characters is Horrocks’ gentle insistence that, though flawed, they are very much like us.
Horrocks offers uncommon insight into her characters, as she enters directly into those spaces where they confront painful realities. In “Embodied,” the reincarnated narrator watches her husband struggling in the wake of the death of their baby, whose soul she couldn’t forgive for wronging her in a past life: “I can’t tell him that I’ve hurt him in a novel, freakish way, a way I never hurt anybody in 5,000 years, and that I’m finding it hard to match the wrong I’ve done to him to the practiced love I had for him before, that I still have for him.” In “At the Zoo,” when a mother takes a trip to the zoo with her father and her son, the boy has a realization: “He’d begged for the zoo, and the zoo is a terrible place.” This revelation, fueled by his grandfather’s cynicism and midday drunkenness, not only highlights the sense of isolation and the complicated gradient of trust that connects the characters. It also beautifully illustrates a small moment of lost innocence.
Perhaps Horrocks’ greatest feat is the range she demonstrates from story to story. Writing about childhood loss to young love, parents who are simultaneously held hostage by their child’s disability and by pirates, and a Russian bride navigating a new life in Finland, all in one volume, Horrocks gives the sense she could tackle any subject and make it emotionally compelling. Her characters don’t bend under the weight of their grim lives, as Lyssa in “Small Steal” demonstrates: “I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.” This book, like any great collection of stories, doesn’t need to rely on commonalities in subject matter or style or tone to be cohesive. Instead the sense of unity arises from the strength of Horrocks’ worldview, the ways in which her characters persevere against the hardships in their lives, and the ways in which those struggles carry the reader to compassion.