Eleanor Swanson’s latest collection of short stories, Exiles and Expatriates, explores a myriad of relationships: husbands and wives, brothers, a daughter and her parents, two sisters, a sister and friend of a dead brother. The permutations are all there, and none of these relationships is easy. The collection won the Press Americana 2013 Prize for Prose and deservedly so.
The stories are told in quiet, luminous prose, exploring difficulties and pain without loud language or exaggerations. And often without any resolution. Sometimes we see similar themes explored from different angles. Take babies, for example. In “Blood Relations,” we watch Clara and Blake move into a house and repair it. Clara becomes pregnant under the pressure of her husband’s desire for a child and gives birth as she worries about her sister, come to help with the newborn, drink and drink, reminding Clara of their mother.
In “Trout,” the narrator has just suffered a miscarriage. She goes camping against her will when her husband Seth invites his brother Beau to come, hoping perhaps for a reconciliation in that relationship. She and her brother’s husband fish for trout and gut them by the stream, the October water leaving her “hands like clubs” (42).
Many stories end with dream images that sum up the story, reflecting the broken relationships. In “Trout,” she dreams that night of putting the fish back together, “laying the fragile spine in place on the pink flesh, replacing the rosy eggs. One by one, I dropped them gently in the water and they swam away, releasing hundreds of fry behind them like silvery streamers” (43). But the relationship between the two brothers, or indeed between the wife and husband, are not repaired.
The child in “Falling All the Way” works for her father during her thirteenth summer. She’s punished for pushing a classmate into an elevator shaft. Unbeknownst to the victim, the elevator is stuck only half a floor below, but the girl is hurt and badly frightened. During her work, one of her father’s employees loses his fingers on the job and she is sent to pick them up while her father rushes the man to the hospital.
“Again and again, I’d dreamed of those fingers human-size, standing outside my bedroom window looking in. Each of them had Johann’s face. The fingers looked at me and smiled, seeing me as no one ever had before, seeing through my skin and bones, right into my wild, lonely heart.” (22)
The title of the collection reflects several stories that take place abroad. “Stray Dogs” is set partly in Galway. A few are set in one of my favorite cities, Prague. In “The Singing Mistress at the Window,” American Katrina is researching a book on Kafka and seems to have found traces of him in her boyfriend Pavel, who spills his grief to her, but she repays it by leaving him and returning home. In the title story, Marek has returned home after years of living as a bit of a nomad, only to find he doesn’t quite fit there either. Tess, the narrator of the story, is alienated by people speaking a different language, among other things, and turns to the nonsensical poetry of Lewis Carroll for solace. Marek gets frustrated when English doesn’t have the proper word for something.
Swanson the poet shines through in lines that took my breath away. In the first story, the children are used to the “perfect velvet dark” of the abandoned building (1). In “Trout,” the yard is described in the light of the late afternoon as “leaves of the four o’clocks dark as overripe eggplant and the fire already drained from the maples” (32). From “Exiles and Expatriates”: “That delicate touch makes me think of dust and other illusions of matter, like the light of burned-out stars, still sparking and flashing up there” (91). Or this one from the same story: “We step into the town cemetery where each perfectly tended grave is a monument to gardening, grief and love and memory quilted together in the dappled light” (94).
Swanson’s collection is a compelling group of stories filled with the dark and light of life, written in understated, elegant prose.