Shattered Lives, Evoked With Subtlety: Jessica Francis Kane’s Collection “This Close” Reviewed


This Close: Stories
by Jessica Francis Kane
Graywolf Press; 179 p.

Jessica Francis Kane’s This Close doesn’t go for the showy. Its conflicts and themes are weighty: within its pages, you can find early death, the effects of depression on a close-knit family, and a devastatingly awkward interaction buoyed by class conflict. But the resolutions of these stories stray from operatic extremes or sudden, striking denouements. The power of these stories comes from subtle accumulations, of details that seem to echo life, of occasionally jarring discontinuities. It can come from a narrator’s wry repetition of the phrase “New York shoes,” or via a traumatized parent revealing a particular detail of their life in a story structured around what has been withheld.

Familial traumas abound within the collection, whether tragedy hitting close to home or the long-term effects of certain psychological conditions. Contained within This Close are two groupings of stories, each centered around a particular family, which allow Kane the ability to explore the effects of these traumas in greater detail. Across four in the book’s first half, we’re introduced to a mother and son, Maryanne and Mike; in a later story, we’ll find that one had died unexpectedly, and we’re given other prisms onto the relationship through the eyes of an unconnected character. Kane specializes in these minor revelations; the trio of stories that close the book cover roughly a decade in the life of the family at its center: academic father, depressed mother, concerned daughter.

These three stories — “The Stand-In,” “The Old Beginning,” and “Local Birds” — chart the effect of each member of the family’s idiosyncrasies on the rest. Taken as a whole, they also represent a multifaceted look at the effects of depression on a family, whether it’s daughter Hannah’s ambiguous feelings about a friend of her father’s or the depressed matriarch Elizabeth’s yearning to control her sleep cycle. These are characters for whom ambiguous spaces are all that remain, and the places Kane leaves this trio at book’s end — some more aware of themselves than they were before, others suddenly grasping for the familiar.

Kane’s characters typically occupy a relatively stable middle-class existence, often with ties to academia. This can occasionally make the milieus of these stories feel overly familiar; when Kane does push against those boundaries, as with the fraught class dynamics of “American Lawn,” in which a pair of neighboring families befriend an immigrant seeking a space in which to garden, the resulting work is often better for it. Like Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Kane is comfortable alluding to the faith of some of her characters — the narrator of “Lucky Boy,” for one. It’s from passing details like this — or the way in which the narrator of “Next in Line” reveals a certain piece of information after holding certain essential information back — that Kane’s collection makes its greatest impact. Here, we get glimpses of lives lived away from the page; in a realist collection such as this, these moments allow for a winning sense of veracity.

For me, the most affecting story in This Close was “First Sale,” in which a young boy and his mother ready a stoop sale. There’s an absent father, and a pervasive sense of loss that informs the entire story; it’s almost unbelievably sad in places, and yet it’s a sorrow achieved through small gestures, rather than plaintive tugs at the proverbial heartstrings. Gaps in shared memories are revealed; one character shows off a melancholy far beyond what one would expect for their age; and abundant heartbreak goes unsaid. It’s that last word that is key here: with This Close, Kane proves as skilled with snappy dialogue and decisive actions as she is with those things left unsaid and undone — and for all the regrets that that can create.

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