A few years ago, I read the excellent novel The Report by Jessica Frances Kane. This was an unusual book which concerned the 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster, a horrific true incident. Given the subject matter, The Report could potentially have been a very dry read, but the story was written with impressive sensitivity which effectively conveyed the lasting impact of the tragic event for those involved.
Now author Jessica Frances Kane follows up that first novel with a collection of 12 short stories: This Close–a collection that focuses on the complexities of relationships. In the first story Lucky Boy, and my favorite in the collection, the author delicately explores the silent, impenetrable divisions of class. The protagonist, a young man named Henry patronises a dry cleaners operated by two young Korean women. Over time an uneasy ‘big-brother’ relationship develops between Henry and Owen, the young son of one of the owners. It’s an awkward relationship, and one that Henry is never comfortable with, but then again, he’s not comfortable with using a dry cleaning service in the first place or with “members of the service industry“ in general. Henry understands, unlike his much more affluent friend Christina, that most people who “serve” others aren’t thrilled about it, and bear no deep-abiding love for those in a higher station in life who can afford to make life a little easier for themselves.
I’d observed Christina’s family and friends and the way they sometimes talked about their relationships with members of the service industry. I thought it was a way of seeming to have servants without admitting you wanted them. Mr. Greene, for example, an expensive florist Christina’s parents had been using for years, was said to have been waiting to do Christina’s wedding since she was a baby. ‘He just loves her,” her mother would croon.
It’s the Gone-with-the-Wind fantasy–our slaves/servants love us so much, they would be happy to be slaves for us even if they weren’t paid! As Henry becomes more involved with Owen, he simultaneously becomes more involved with Christina. We know these parallel paths can’t continue–something has to give. There’s a moment when Henry’s life could go in an entirely different direction, but then again there are plenty of indications that he’s not a decisive person and will bend with the stronger wind.
Some of the stories in the collection are connected, and this device somehow made the stories seem richer. Perhaps this is because the author picks up her characters at several points in their lives or views them from different angles. In American Lawn, Pat answers an ad for a plot of land placed by a man named Kirill. Kirill who has limited English, and who lives in an apartment, wants a piece of land that he can garden in exchange for vegetables. The plan goes well, until the boundaries of the relationship become blurred and complicated by the neighbor Janeen. Essentials of Acceleration brings more focus on to Pat’s neighbor “go-getter” Janeen.
One family–John, Elizabeth and their daughter Hannah appears at different times in their lives in three connected stories: The Stand-In, The Old Beginning, and another favourite Local Birds. The problems within the family are re-visited with each subsequent story and the problems haven’t gone away but have morphed or mutated, so the mother, Elizabeth who is”disengaged with the world” in The Stand-In is still basically the same in Local Birds, a story that occurs much later in the characters’ lives, but the difference is that over the years, Hannah no longer tries to understand her mother’s peculiarities. In Local Birds, it’s John’s retirement party, thrown by Hannah for her father and some of his closest work associates. Elizabeth makes a brief appearance, but with her typical behaviour, she soon bows out:
Once upon a time Hannah would have searched for reasons, too, desperate to placate and include a mother who needed to remove herself. Now she is calm and helpful, a remarkable transformation. John wonders how she managed it. He thinks of all the times he might have intervened in the past, all the roads he might have gone down trying to negotiate between them during the difficult years. He believes not one of those roads would have led here, to this night, the three of them together. His mistake would have been to assume at any point that their problems were more than a stage. Everything is stages. He’s glad he stayed out of it.
Of course, John’s thoughts aren’t exactly accurate. Elizabeth’s withdrawal is not a “stage” as it’s a continued behaviour. Nothing is ‘solved’; it’s simply that now Hannah, for better or worse, now accepts her mother’s behavior without question. Is this a sign of maturity on Hannah’s part, an acceptance of the inevitable, or a sort of denial that there’s a problem?
Other connected stories are: Lesson, First Sale, Double Take, Night Class–all glimpses at moments in the lives of a woman named Maryanne and her son, Mike. Lesson and Night Class both felt rather undeveloped and were snapshots rather than substantive stories, but apart from that This Close is an excellent, polished and perceptive collection. I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years, and while I’ve found many new authors this way, I’ll add that collections of interconnected stories by one author have a special allure, and reading this collection reminded me of Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda stories. Many of the stories in This Close explore the fuzzy space between the people we are and the people we’d like to be through the turning points in various relationships. While the recognition of the difference between who we are and who we’d like to be is a sign of maturity, the author, shows us that turning away from opportunities to become a better or different person can also be an acceptance of an easier choice of less self-examination, and in lives scarred by misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes, often the easier path is the road of less resistance and change.