You Are Not A Stranger Here was Adam Haslett’s debut, written in his early twenties while he was studying law at Yale. For a debut, the maturity and complexity on display here is impressive, coupled with a sensitive and intelligent handling of difficult subjects. Haslett doesn’t put a foot wrong across these nine stories, which are striking in their consistency and fully realised in their tone.
Most of Haslett’s characters are living lives of quiet desperation, whether they are lonely, old or suffering from the pains of unrequited love or mental illness. They are suffering silently for want of true connection or redemption. His characters are orphans, parents who have lost children, the sick and the depressed. These are people who have been dealt the worst of hands, and yet they remain good people, trying to do their best in a world that is giving them little in return.
This is particularly true of the stories here that focus on gay characters, who are all complex, self-aware and fully rounded. In ‘The Beginnings of Grief’ a young boy deals with the death of his parents and his growing attraction to a surly classmate, by goading the object of his affection to beat him up. In the painful and heartbreaking ‘Devotion’ an unmarried brother and sister who live together prepare for a visit from a man they have both loved and have not seen for over twenty-five years. In this striking story, the harsh pain of lost chances glints through the lucid prose. In ‘Reunion’, a terminal AIDS patient plans his final withdrawal from his life with care and attention, only to be blindsided by a surreal form of dementia.
“He experienced a familiar comfort being in the presence of another person’s unknowable pain. More than any landscape, this place felt like home.”
Mental illness is another theme that runs through the collection and Haslett is incredibly skilled at depicting the manic or delusional without sacrificing their inate humanity and inherent selves. He presents the person, rather than the illness and as such adds to the poignancy of the situations his characters find themselves in.
The opening story ‘Notes for my Biographer’ stands out for its use of humour, as an old man, off his medication, dictates his life story. In the haunting and complex ‘The Volunteer’ Haslett explores the friendship between a mature schizophrenic and the heartsick high school volunteer who visits her in the institution where she’s voluntarily incarcerated herself. His depiction of the pain that can surround the teenage years is so acute that you will find yourself wondering which of these two volunteers has it worse. It’s a stunning story, with dual narrative voices, overlapping plots and more emotion than many novels I’ve read.
Yet the stand out story for me was ‘Divination’, a taut and terrifying tale of a boy who has a premonition of the death of one of his teachers. When he has a premonition of his brother’s death, his family don’t heed his warnings, believing his ‘gift’ to be a form of mental illness, one that also afflicted the boy’s father. It’s a masterclass in storytelling – sustaining unremitting tension over a few short pages, only to wrongfoot the reader at the last moment for added power and poignancy.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a short story collection that is so assured and emotionally engaging. Haslett writes with such a keen sense of humanity, a sensitivity to people in pain and an apparent simplicity which belies the complexity and skill at the heart of these stories. If I had one criticism it would be that there is a Chekhovian bleakness at the heart of these stories, that can feel a little unrelenting, but Haslett has such compassion for his characters that a sense of hopefulness pervades amid the darkness.
I have a copy of Haslett’s first novel Imagine Me Gone and I’m very much looking forward to reading it based on my experience with his short stories.
READ ON: IBOOKS
NUMBER READ: 301
NUMBER REMAINING: 445
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!