Kate Cantrill reviews A.M. Homes' first collection since 1990.
Things You Should Know: A Collection of Storiesby A.M. Homes
HarperCollins, 224 pp., $23.95
A.M. Homes' stories are steeped in bodies of water, filled with floating characters who forget (or refuse) to breathe as they decide whether to drown or swim for shore: It's a quiet, rhythmic process, one that's both pleasurable and torturous to watch. "I'm having it again," the father in "Raft in Water, Floating" says, "-- the not breathing." Homes' first collection since 1990, Things You Should Know, feels like that -- like not breathing, then breathing, not breathing, breathing. Her greatest gift as a writer might be her patience, her ability to hold back and stay calm. Stop. Look. Listen. Breathe.
Thematically, these stories are deeply intertwined, each addressing the subject of losing, becoming lost, searching for the lost, or metamorphosing into something unrecognizable and therefore as good as lost. Similar events are repeated, as well -- deadly car accidents, orgasmic earthquakes, cathartic carnival rides. Sentences, and even full paragraphs, from one story reappear in another story, sometimes verbatim. This is not to say that these stories are linked: They're absolutely individual. They're also not easy to read. Homes is well-known for crafting harrowing plot lines and desperate characters that make the reader feel voyeuristic and shamed. She could be described much as a husband describes his wife in "Please Remain Calm":
"There is a coldness to her, a chill I find terrifying, an absence of emotion that puts a space between us." The punch-line rhythms of her dialogue sometimes disconnect the reader: "'Is there anything I can do for you?' 'Can you have cancer for me?'"
But inevitably, there is at least one moment in each story that is truly moving. Though the events in "The Chinese Lesson" are intriguing, the characters aren't equally so until the next-to-last page, when the narrator finds his elderly Chinese mother-in-law crouched naked and crying in the corner of the living room. He turns off the light, touches her shoulder, and listens as she tells him -- twice -- that she wants to go home. A simple moment, yet one embraced in something not readily found in Homes' worlds -- tenderness. It's at these moments -- when she stops her characters from reacting with raw emotion -- that Homes proves a master of her craft, one who is at times too distant, but one who can convey the effects of pain so successfully that the reader actually feels it.