Adam Haslett makes one thing very clear: if you think your life is rough, rest assured–it could be way, way worse.
In his collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, his characters’ lives are miserable and tragic and sad. One dude is dying of AIDS. A high-school kid’s dad dies in a car crash only weeks after his mom has committed suicide. A young kid feels helpless and desperate after foreseeing someone’s death.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, many of his characters are dealing with severe mental illness. Schizophrenia, mania, and depression all play major roles in stories.
But Haslett’s portrayal of mental illness is not annoying, like Hannah (Lena Dunham) on Girls:
Instead, it is an uncomfortable, realistic, frantic portrayal, like Carrie (Claire Danes) on Homeland:
(In fact, one story reminded me specifically of the scene from the first season of Homeland where Carrie is in her house with papers and photographs tacked everywhere, and she is furiously scribbling on the walls in different colored markers. Alas, I couldn’t find that scene on Youtube.)
The characters’ situations are made more uncomfortable, because the characters have made conscious (and, often, objectively bad) decisions that landed them where they are (like going off of their meds).
Some of the stories made me cringe. Some made me frown. Some made me straight-up shudder. They’re not scary. They’re just . . . uncomfortable.
They are also really, really well written (which explains the visceral reaction). The dialogue, especially, is great (“I used to cast fire from the tips of my fingers some weeks and burn everything in my path and it was all progress and it was all incredibly, incredibly beautiful.”).
The stories are character-driven and made more interesting by their characters’ complex, conflicted relationships. Haslett pulls you in multiple directions emotionally—you understand a kid’s desire to feel something (anything) after his parents have died, but you hate the outlets he chooses and the relationship dynamics he creates. Haslett elicits deep empathy for characters that are flawed and hurt and ill.
Rating: 4/5 💊
The first two stories are the strongest in the collection. I raced through them, and they left me a little breathless and exhausted. None of the rest of the stories quite live up to those first two, but they are all pretty darn good.
In case you haven’t gleaned this yet, allow me to be explicit: this is not light reading.
- “Notes to My Biographer”: A 73-year-old father is in the throes of a manic episode. The father decides to make a cross-country trip to visit family members he hasn’t seen in years, but his visits are not well received. 4.5/5
- “The Good Doctor”: A young, new doctor is working for a small-town clinic. A patient, who has been getting her prescriptions auto-refilled for too long, has missed several appointments at the clinic. The doctor decides to make a house call, and the patient opens up to him about her son’s meth addiction and tragic death. 4.5/5
- “The Beginnings of Grief”: A high-school kid has recently become an orphan—his mother committed suicide and, soon thereafter, his father died in a car accident. Now, he’s living with his neighbors (an old lady and her even older mother), coming and going as he pleases. He finds solace in an unhealthy relationship with a kid in his shop class. 3.5/5
- “Devotion”: A British brother and sister live together in their parents’ house. An old friend, whom they haven’t seen for many years, is coming for dinner. The visit dredges up long-buried secrets. 4/5
- “War’s End”: The title of the book comes from a line in this story. A guy suffering from depression goes with his wife on a research trip. He find the perfect place to commit suicide, but his plan is thwarted by a weird grandmother who invites him to tea at her house that smells like rotting flesh. 3/5
- “Reunion”: A man dying of AIDS leaves his job (telling his boss he’s going on vacation), wallows, and writes letters to his father. 2.5/5
- “Divination”: An eleven-year-old at boarding school is playing soccer with a friend when he has an odd realization: his Latin teacher has just died. Another teacher finds the dead teacher the next morning. Later, the kid has a nightmare and realizes that someone else will die. He tells his parents in an effort to stop it, but he does not get the reaction from them he wants. 3.5/5
- “My Father’s Business”: Another story of mania. We see a man’s mania through his patient file, which he has requested and reviews on the train. He has checked himself out of a treatment facility and is headed home. 3.5/5
- “The Volunteer”: As part of a volunteer program, a high-school student makes regular visits to a woman in a voluntary treatment facility. She suffers from schizophrenia but has been on effective drugs for decades. She decides that she shouldn’t be taking the drugs anymore and begins to flush them. Once off the drugs, she begins to feel and experience things more distinctly again . . . and she is revisited by her old companion, Hester. 4/5
Who should read it: Sergio (i.e., people who have an odd (misplaced?) affinity for the word “portico,” which is employed herein); Rick (i.e., people who teach counseling courses and might be able to incorporate some of these stories into their syllabi).
For a taste of Haslett’s writing: visit his website. There is an excerpt from his full-length novel, Union Atlantic, published in 2009, as well as links to some of his short stories.
Book-club aside: I read this book for a book club. I wrote this review before I went to the book club meeting to make sure that it wasn’t influenced by others’ thoughts and opinions. But, following the meeting, I have this to add: despite the subject matter, all eight people (3 guys, 5 women; various ages) thought the book was GREAT.