This Is Not Your City
  by Caitlin Horrocks

Sarabande Books
2011
Paperback
First Collection







"In this, my 127th life, I am employed as an internal auditor with Wells Fargo. I live in Des Moines, Iowa, in a white, three-bedroom house. I have a husband named Murray and six months ago, I had a baby son named Jacob. I don’t have him anymore."


Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Starting a new short story collection is rather like making a new friend – there is a certain amount of anticipation coupled with mild mistrust. But, then, this new friend says something startling or amusing or wise, and you warm to them and want to know more. So it is with Caitlin Horrocks début collection This is Not Your City. I started the book wanting to like it because of its blurb which had already hooked me, but I was unsure of the first story. Then I found I was thinking about that story and its characters all of the next day; I was also mulling over its use of the second person plural. I went back to the story and re-read it. Yes, it was a cracker. Then the second story blew me away, as did the third and, by the end, the book and I were firm friends.

Horrocks is one of those wonderful writers who excel at diversity; she reminds me of Nam Le and Anthony Doerr in that respect. Each of her stories is a contained world and they play out as comfortably in rural Ohio as in Greece or Finland. Her characters are loners with lively minds and quirky interests, and each of the voices in the book is separate and unique.

If there are linking themes in these stories they are the tricky nature of friendship and the plight of lonely women. In the first story Zolaria, two girls wade through the murky waters of childhood friendship and betrayal; the rituals and games of their youth linger on into adult life and these become mixed with the narrator's guilt. The story exposes sticky truths about the nastiness that often runs through young girls' friendships and how these childhood issues never quite let us go.

It Looks Like This is told in the form of a writing paper – to be graded by a kindly English teacher – complete with photographs and citations. Far from falling flat, this proves to be an apt and funny approach to the story of a sweet girl with low self esteem and an invalid mother, and her tentative friendship with a straight-talking Amish woman. The story weaves biology and quilting into its narrative and it is joyfully original.

Another story of friendship is Going to Estonia, where the innocent Ursula, newly arrived in Helsinki, is befriended by the drunken, unemployed oddball Jukka. Two resolute loners, they come together over stolen gifts and a trip to Tallinn Bay on a shopping cruise. It's a touching portrayal of colliding individuals and hoped-for, but not acquired, love.

Horrocks's writing style is hard to pin down: she makes language glide and soar but she retains control and is not tricksy. Her sentences ramble sometimes but that is usually intended to highlight the wandering nature of a character's mind, as in the opening story Zolaria, where a group of girls toss another girl's wig to each other:
And instead of giving it back, I will throw it to Andrea, who will throw it to Aisha, who will throw it to a girl whose name I don't remember, and another, and another, and another, because there will be thirty girls in sixth-period gym and I can't remember them all.
It is always heartening to discover a new writer who is doing interesting things with the short story. Horrocks is skilled at portraying the minds of the young as they turn over the troubles of life; she does young love very well. Where she excels is simply as a storyteller. Whether her fiction deals with age-gap relationships, a nasty grandfather, or a woman who believes she has lived 127 lives as man and woman, to the extent that it unhinges her, Horrocks always manages to pull off the story. It is rare to read a collection where you gallop through the stories just to find out what oddities and insights the next one will offer, and the one after that, and the one after that. Caitlin Horrocks is much garlanded with awards and prizes and, from the evidence in this collection, all honours are well deserved.
 



Read a story from this collection in the Barcelona Review


Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an Irish short story writer, novelist and poet. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm is just out from Salmon Poetry. Her fourth short story collection Mother America will be published by New Island in May 2012.
Nuala's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"   

Patrick Chapman "The Wow Signal"

Kuzhali Manickavel "Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings"

Moira Crone "What Gets Into Us"

Michael J. Farrell "Life in the Universe"

Simon van Booy "Love Begins in Winter"

Teresa Svoboda "Trailer Girl"

Edna O'Brien "Saints and Sinners"

Aleksander Hemon (ed) Best European Fiction 2010
                     
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Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan. This Is Not Your City is her début collection. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories 2011, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, The Pushcart Prize XXXV, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and elsewhere. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize.

Read an interview with Caitlin Horrocks