Winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Heather A. Slomski’s debut story collection takes loss as its primary subject and holds it up to the light. In prose spare and daring, poised yet startling, these stories take shape in reality, but reality, they sometimes show us, is not a separate realm from the fantastic or the surreal. Two couples meet for dinner to acknowledge an affair. A mannequin recalls a lover and the life she mysteriously lost. Two girls observe a young widow’s grief through a café window. A man’s hat is as discerning as Cinderella’s shoe.
In the fifteen stories that comprise this collection—some short as breaths, two of them novelettes—Slomski writes with a keen eye about relationships. About the desires that pull us together and the betrayals that push us apart. About jealousy, obsession, loneliness and regret—the byproducts of loving someone that keep us awake at night.
The characters in these stories share meals, drink wine, buy furniture and art. They live domestic lives, so often wanting to love someone yet ending up alone. In one story, a woman’s fiancé leaves her when she goes to post some mail. In another story, a man can’t move past an affair his wife almost had. Another story describes a series of drawings to detail a couple’s end. But while loss and heartache pervade these stories, there is also occasional hope. For, as the title story shows us, sometimes a breakup isn’t an end at all, but the beginning of your life.
I had plenty of thoughts while reading these stories. The most pervasive thought being:
I think most of these stories went over my head. I don't like admitting that exactly, but that has to be a part of it.
Experimental writing and open-ended stories and metaphors are not usually lost on me, but this collection put me to my paces. These are not romantic stories, nor stories of hope, nor stories of pain. I found them to be simply vignettes on random observations of others' losses, without explanation nor emotion.
With that said, I thought there was a lot of lovely imagery and that every story had pieces that I found interesting, even as just an idea, but when I finished them I couldn't quite piece together what I just read.
I found the best story in the collection to be A Seat at the Table, in which sisters and their father ruminate on whether a widow should be left alone to grieve or given company. It is my opinion that Slomski most effectively demonstrated her skill here, leaving the reader with a good sense of what she wanted to convey - for the reader to consider his/her own viewpoint on the matter, as well as the viewpoint of the widow's.
In all, I felt this collection was a struggle for me. I see Slomski's talent, but feel it needs a bit more polishing in order for the experimental nature of the stories to hit the reader where she is aiming.