The Loss of All Lost Things: Stories
By Amina Gautier
Elixir Press, Feb. 2016
$19.00, 200 pages
One of the great joys of reading authors with whom one is unfamiliar is discovering a truly distinctive writer whose work pushes all your buttons, intellectually and emotionally, and leaves you stunned, as if you’d looked at the sun for more than just that one permissible moment. In the last few years, I’ve experienced this reaction to the work of Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans), Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Violet Kupersmith (The Frangipani Hotel), Brittani Sonnenberg (Home Leave), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley (Cowboys and East Indians).
Amina Gautier is the latest writer to make me mutter to myself in amazement as I read her stories. Her debut collection of stories, At-Risk (2012), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. The follow-up, 2014’s Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and an IPPY at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her debut focused on at-risk youth, while the follow-up examined the bi-cultural lives of Afro-Puerto Rican Americans with her trademark combination of intensity and insight. Gautier is unsparing with her very human characters (and readers), but she is also compassionate.
Gautier’s third collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, is her best work yet. Here she moves beyond the concerns of her earlier work to the issue of loss in its many forms. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at loose ends in figuring out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. What so impresses me about these stories is Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of very complex characters with a psychological acuity that will break your heart repeatedly.
The opening “Lost and Found” follows a young boy who has been abducted by a man identified only as “Thisman” as they move from motel to motel over a period of several months. They watch The Twilight Zone wherever they stay. One episode teaches him that “this is something one can do with words, stretch them into softness and push them past their meaning. Take him, for example. He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk. . . He knows that there is a place for things that are lost. . . He remembers the Lost and Found at the school he no longer attends. . . If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.” Only five pages into this collection and Gautier has sent repeated bolts of lightning through my heart and mind.
The title story takes us into the home and life of the grieving parents of the boy from “Lost and Found.” The opening line scalds.
“The posters go up immediately.”
The narrator continues. “They search in all weather; they harass the media for coverage. They leave the light on outside. They do not touch their answering machine: they keep the message exactly the same. They supply the authorities with recent photos, with medical and dental records, with everything they ask. They do all they can think of. They never rest. They never tire. They never lose hope.”
As the weeks and months pass, each deals with the heartbreak, anger, and sense of loss differently, and it begins to wear down their unified front and eventually their relationship. “Blame is the glue that keeps them together. They shuttle it between them, neither one able to shoulder it alone. . . They cannot endure this without each other. Splitting up is too simple of a solution. Far too easy to buckle under the strain of it all. . . They are stuck. Stuck here. Stuck in this time. Stuck together. . . Worse than mourning is this waiting that never ends.”
Gautier stares across the abyss of what is perhaps every parent’s greatest fear and suggests what might be found on the other side, if it can be reached somehow. After the supporters and media have moved on, after hope seems like pretending, the parents make a random decision which they are convinced is the only way to save themselves, their marriage, and the well-being of their younger son. Only those experiencing this loss can decide what is best, even if it appears illogical or pointless to those on the outside.
“Cicero Waiting” is a variation on this theme of parents coping with the loss of a child. “Intersections” explores the seemingly cliched affair between a white college professor and a beautiful and brilliant black student with results that manage to sidestep those cliches.
“A Cup of My Time” probes another marriage, this time that of young, expectant parents. Sona’s twin boys are “battling it out inside of my womb.” Her doctor advises her, prior to a risky procedure, that if it fails to save the fetuses, “the two of you will have a tough decision to make. You’ll have to choose which one you want to live.”
“Disturbance” is the odd man out in this collection, a piece of speculative fiction with echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Gautier takes what seems like a domestic drama and stretches it into purely metaphorical territory with haunting results.
Gautier also explores individuals searching for the solutions to the voids in their lives.
In “What’s Best for You,” we meet Bernice, a black single mother who works in the university library and is lonely but maintaining her standards. When the amiable new custodian flirts with her, she is forced to confront the cost of her biases.
“As I Wander” finds a widow named Judy trying to adjust to her life following the loss of her older husband. She has lost track of the shape of her normal life. She spends the night on a bench in a local park, sleeping among the homeless. “She had lost her ability to find anything disgusting in mingling among those whom she would have normally avoided. . . Life had stolen something from them, robbed them, made them crazy and despairing so that they cared only for something to distract them. The park had become a depository for the unwanted, forgotten, and discarded.” Including, now, Judy. She seeks solace in an unexpected form with disappointing results.
The Loss of All Lost Things is a dark and often disturbing collection, but Gautier is such a gifted storyteller, the characters and conflicts so compelling, the telling details so perfectly chosen, that you can’t turn away. Amina Gautier is a fearless writer who I am willing to follow anywhere.
This review was originally published on April 20, 2016.