If a Stranger Approaches You (A Review)

By Jennifer Ray Morell

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Sarabande Books

184 pgs. | $15.95

In her collection of short stories, If a Stranger Approaches You, Laura Kasischke unveils the hidden workings of humanity – from our deepest desires to our painful secrets to our moments when we become unhinged.

In “Mona,” the first of fifteen stories, Kasischke begins with a warning, and a promise of the shocks to come: “They’d all warned her not to snoop.” And so begins what could seemingly be any tale of mother and daughter. Though her daughter, Abigail, gave her no reason to suspect that anything was amiss – no change in behavior, no provocative clothing – Mona can not help herself, motivated more by her own past, than her daughter’s actions. Though she hunted for clues of sexual activity, or alcohol and drug use, what Mona discovers hidden in her daughter’s dresser drawer, is the first stunning and disturbing twist in this collection.

While Mona is invading her daughter’s privacy, it might be that Kasischke is invading ours, mining the most minute revelations for her stories. Intertwined in the tales is the thread of secrecy, of the basest and most upsetting and yet ultimately most human longings, desires, and shame that we keep hidden deep within ourselves. These stories touch a nerve that many authors dare not approach, and that is what makes them so engrossing.

The collection contains some vignettes, stories that take up only a page or two, but leave a lasting impression. “Memorial” muses on the legacy of tragedy. Told from the perspective of an angel statue that has been erected to memorialize children who were killed in a fire one hundred years earlier, she now lays watch over living children who climb on her wings. One hundred years after the fire, she alone carries the burden to remember the dead, asking the question: “Who loves a dead child after its mother has died?”

Kasischke is perhaps stronger though in her longer stories, particularly “Melody,” which follows Tony Harmon on the day of his daughter’s birthday party. Haunted by the buzzing of telephone wires, he struggles to be heard over the noise.

Here Tony wrestles with the worry that everyone is gossiping about the end of his marriage, along with the realization that no one truly cares: “Here, no one had to be reminded to mind his or her own business. Your neighbors could be lying on their front lawn moaning in agony, and you’d just politely pull your curtains closed so you wouldn’t offend them by noticing.” There is a fine line between your neighbor’s business, and turning a blind eye, and yet Tony realizes the seedy underbelly of ignorance – anything could be happening behind closed doors and the interior of the human heart, and all its infinite secrets, would forever remain a mystery. As he heads towards his former home and life, we are offered glimpses of his relationship at its dawn and its demise, and Kasischke deftly examines the complexities of a breakup, as well as what is left behind.

For some of these stories, I was compelled to reread them immediately upon their conclusion. Initially I had worried that I might have missed something, but Kasischke is skilled at administering shock. “Somebody’s Mistress, Somebody’s Wife,” is one such story, and still after multiple examinations, I am left shocked and confused by it.

In “The Foreclosure,” Kasischke presents a woman who is desperate with the idea of owning a home, a familiar pang for this New York City apartment dweller. She laments about the close quarters with her neighbors, hearing every thump and shout, but she takes it a bit further as she is tangled in jealousy for what she cannot afford: “I lay down to sleep in a prickling gown of them every night. I woke up angry and tired.” She takes to roaming the neighborhood following the housing crisis. From her damp and tired apartment, she collects the pieces of others’ homes in her heart, imagining what she might be able to do with them, if given the opportunity. When one’s dreams rest on the financial ruin of another, so often the stories of loss are ignored. While the wealthy may use the collapse to pick up an inexpensive rental property, we hear of the prowess rather than the tragedy that led to the loss of another family’s home.

Yet another stand out story from this collection is, “I Hope This is Hell,” where a woman buys supplies for her annual Fourth of July barbeque, immediately following a tragic accident. While she waits in line, with other shoppers growling at the inefficiency of the cashiers, she replays the events of her life that led to this exact moment, standing with her groceries, though not the ones that her guests might expect, for the party she will attempt in the wake of a broken life.

Kasischke is adept at exploring the small and unspoken: our secrets, our hidden motivations, our lies. In doing so, she has written a compelling collection of stories, some of which accomplish literature’s most paramount task: they linger.

Jennifer Ray Morell is a freelance writer and photographer in New York City. She writes about music at The Ruckus (http://www.whatstheruckus.com/) and her adventures at That Long Yellow Line (http://www.thatlongyellowline.com/). Check Twitter for her thoughts on TV shows, puppies, and cupcakes: 
https://twitter.com/heyjenray
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