Amina Gautier’s third collection of short stories The Loss of All Lost Things is an accomplished reflection of our terrible reality. Abducted children, rent-boys, old maids, drop-outs, mourning parents, aging-regret filled parents, widowers eating uncooked Thanksgiving turkey with canned stuffing, the ugliest faces of divorce riddle each page with regret and melancholia.
These catalogues of failed relationships and the banality of beginning to love again hit front and center through image and symbol. In “A Cup of My Time” a pregnant mother of fighting twins asks her husband to decide which one they should save. The story begins, “The boys are fighting inside of me. I can feel them doing it, making a commotion, sapping all my energy.” The story ends with, “His chin digs into my shoulder, his head rests heavy against the side of my face. I do not push him away. Lying beside him, I am prepared for tomorrow. I practice being still, ‘Sona?’ I say, ‘Choose.’” Thematically, these are realistic snippets of inner-personal turmoil. Yet, the skill in which the stories are told are redemptive and addictive.
In “Intersections,” the trope of an aging college professor chasing youth through an affair with a graduate student is cringe-worthy. He imagines leaving his wife, who is yearning to mail-adopt a Kenyan or Venezuelan child, any race but their own. They’re distant do-gooders, disconnected and futile. The emptiness of urban American life divided by race and class continually slaps the reader awake.
The beauty and power of each story is that Gautier is beyond judgement, preferring to shift points of view just when plot totters towards predictable. The confidence to digress and keep tension below the surface is magnificent.
In “Navigator of Culture,” the narrator begins telling a story of a summer where she grew too tall too fast and into the awkwardness of braces and glasses and adolescence. Her summer comes to a head as her newly divorced mother moves them to Brooklyn. And just when you think, say a third of the way in, you know what this story is about and what Gautier wants to say, “Fifteen summers later, and I have come back to Bedford-Stuyvesant a stranger.” You don’t. The narration picks up on a visit to her old no-nonsense neighborhood hairdresser, now senile and bed-ridden, to ask advice about her life, marriage and pregnancy. The narrator is seeking acceptance. When the hairdresser’s granddaughter, the narrator’s childhood friend and neighbor, gets into an argument the story culminates, illuminating the many layers of social-class division. Where do we learn these judgments? Why do parents teach their children to categorize? Is prejudice inevitable? Inheritable? Again and again, by stepping aside, Gautier gives the reader each character’s bias with supportive reasoning, forcing analysis of our own. As the narrator leaves Brooklyn returning to her suburban life in Long Island, her white husband, her money and the security of her car, she remembers a childhood argument and her own cruelty:
Unlike Miss Jefferson, my mother didn’t believe dolls influence self-image and standards of beauty. Neither she nor I knew anything of that damage being done to me.
“Don’t you have any real Barbies?” I ask.
“In your hand," Annette says.
“No,” I say, shaking my head sadly, a jeweler informing a customer that a diamond she brought in is fake, just an eight-sided piece of glass and reflected light. “Not a Christie. A Barbie."
“That is Barbie,” Annette says.
“Barbie’s white. But your doll is pretty anyway. She reminds me of my mother.”
Understated and sharp, lines of sand are continually drawn across kitchen floors. What is often a racist experience becomes classist. A story about love turns to one about aging. These are multi-layer slices of life. Gautier leaves moral judgment to the stories’ action while forcing the reader to see both sides of the mirror: the dirty backside up against the wall and the reflection of whatever passes through it.