When prowling through the aisles of a bookstore, on the hunt, it is easy to become mislead. Prominent displays feature an alluring array of colorful covers and beguiling titles, innocently situated to whet your appetite and ensnare your senses. I have been caught in this marketing trap numerous times, my friends. Lured into some fantasy by my own overactive faculties and then woefully disappointed by the actual words on the pages. But my foray into Caitlin Horrocks’ written world was a very different experience altogether, one that I admittedly underestimated and was thus blindsided by the unapologetic force of her storytelling prowess.
Published earlier in the year by Louisville’s own independent publishing house, Sarabande Books, Caitlin Horrocks’ debut collection of short stories, This Is Not Your City, packs a literary vigor that I was not prepared to receive. The collection consists of thirteen stories each following thirteen women on both darkly comic and frighteningly raw emotional paths. While the collection begins lukewarm, starting slowly and safely with a well-crafted but predictable emotional reflection on childhood titled “Zolaria”, the momentum gains in a quiet crescendo with each building tale.
Horrocks is a true character chameleon, able to ease from one voice to the next with the simplicity of changing masks. Her narrative voice never failed to transition gracefully, deftly and believably probing the minds of women from a myriad of backgrounds: a Russian mail-order bride in Finland, an uncertain young teacher with dark-minded recesses, the stolid and simple wife of an animal kidnapper. The situations could not be more varied from each other, the influences more distinct or changing, but Horrocks guides the reader through the diversity with a quiet yet firm hand.
Stories like the oddly creepy “Zero Confidential” and the sad and transfixing “Going to Estonia”, present both Horrocks’ descriptive skill and her effortless – yet utterly direct – delivery. In a tone that is casual and easy, Horrocks uses her talent to paint a raw portrait of reality, bolding asserting the uncomfortable and unromantic actualities of being human. Despite the varying speakers and changing character perspectives, this theme of the un-beautiful, the stark and bleak corners of the mind carries throughout, manifesting differently, but strongly in each situation.
Although the title of the collection shares its namesake with only one of the stories, each piece contributes to this moniker of displacement whether literally, emotionally or psychologically. The sense of place in the collection maintains a continuing strength; cities are named freely while states of mind are not. Instead, the reader is left with the task of working out the hooks, snares and fumbles that keep each character bound to their inner demons and displaced from the outer world. Gregariously scrubbing away the fairytale sheen, Horrocks explores the discomfort of relocation, of mental and psychological withdrawal into the dark alcoves that slash our roots in the named and physical world. She leads the reader outside of the soft, gentle comfort zones that comprise our outer facades and plunges unapologetically into the shadowed and often frightening motivations behind our eyes – those primordial corners that polite society hushes up and shews away.
Horrocks uses these confused and often misguided voices to reveal the sense of self that is detached from the labels we rely on for direction, comfort and clarity. We grope in the dark for the safety net of the understood, marked and arranged to escape the ousted feelings, the sense of not having a “city” base to lean into for bearing. Without the guiding presence of the known to anchor ourselves, we, along with Horrocks’ characters, float in the in the microcosm of our inner demons, forced to face that which is secret and juxtaposed with the visceral and solid façade of the known.
While the thought of our own revealed darkness standing naked before us is a fear that simmers in most of us, Horrocks invites intrepid readers to query those dusky and unadorned nooks in a powerful, albeit short, collection of stories. While unsettling in subject matter, Horrocks’ writing possesses a degree of depth rarely visited in modern storytelling. While her message can be harsh and her portrait of life an arm-twisting look at the raw, Horrocks’ literary dexterity is unparalleled; her prose is a natural talent that flows seamlessly with the understory. This, my friends, is the kind of writing that makes you envious.
Don’t spare a second glance for the flashy displays, dear readers. Instead, make a bee-line for the quiet shelf, the subtle spot erstwhile unknown. Breathe deep, hold your sense of self tight and let This Is Not Your City challenge you.
Photo: Courtesy of www.litstack.com