The characters in Amina Gautier’s third collection accumulate a lifetime of losses; it’s what unifies the stories. And while thematically linked collections are a staple of literary fiction, what Gautier does with the theme of loss is refreshing. None of her characters improve as a result of their misfortune. Instead, they continue to be selfish or engage in questionable behavior.
In “As I Wander” a recent widow takes to wandering the streets and sleeping with a stranger. In “Intersections” a character stalks his estranged lover, critiquing the women who pass by: “He cannot watch the women… They unnerve him. When they pass in front of his white ’91 Volvo SE Station Wagon they seem to him a potential threat… He cannot believe Jasmine lives here.”
But Gautier isn’t out to construct simple anti-heroes. She grants all of her characters moments of dignity and grace. Take this passage from the title story about parents whose son has been kidnapped:
The missing, the absence, the waiting, takes their toll. In the beginning, they spent all of their time searching, but the exhaustion of daily life has overtaken them. They cannot do nothing but search. They must eat, they must sleep. Certainly they do not indulge—no parties, no movies, no dancing—but once in a while they do turn on the television. They opt for marathons—I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, and sit through them unblinking.
What makes this passage especially good is that The Twilight Zone appears in an earlier story, “Lost and Found,” which is told from the kidnapped son’s perspective. Gautier draws repeated parallels between her stories; a classics teacher in “Cicero Waiting” also has had a child abducted. While that teacher copes with his situation by becoming a more dedicated instructor, a teacher in “Disturbance,” who’s in a very different situation, watches his stature as a mentor diminish. Through repetition of professions, pop culture references, and circumstances, Gautier exposes the irony inherent in loss. Each character struggles uniquely, but they do not struggle alone. The recursive nature of the collection demonstrates that human loss is unexceptional and routine.
Gautier’s use of narrative voice furthers the sense that these stories are fatally linked. There’s a god-like tone to many of them. “What’s Best for You” begins this way: “Here is Bernice in mid-afternoon, filling a two-shelved cart with books checked out through Inter Library Loan. Down they will go to Circulation where they will be left for patrons who live too near to have their books mailed.” If a reader senses inevitability in these opening sentences, a suggestion that Bernice is so provincial that her life cannot change, that reader will feel rewarded in the story’s final paragraphs.
In the stories with stolen children Gautier excludes character names opting instead for pronouns. The missing names, like the missing children, haunt the text through absence.
Yet Gautier’s first impulse as a writer isn’t exclusion—it’s inclusion. In “Intersections” she writes, “Every time he drove through an intersection, he’d remember the patterns in her scalp and how they’d been a map, showing him all the possible ways he could go.” Throughout this story, Jack an “inconspicuous white” married professor and Jasmine a black doctoral student are involved in an affair that’s charged by attraction and repulsion. Through beautifully rendered passages like the one above, Jasmine’s hair comes to signify this tension.
This is Gautier’s third story collection to be chosen for publication through a contest. That’s three times that her manuscripts were selected from a competitive field. It’s easy to understand why. With each story in The Loss of All Lost Things, Gautier convinces the reader of her vision. She convinces us that people like Bernice exist and that their choices in the face of cruelty or loss are neither right nor wrong, but simply so.
Renee Simms is a writer and assistant professor of African American studies. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Joyland, The Rumpus, North American Review and elsewhere.