I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. Publication date: 5 April 2022
As many do, I tend to picture California as a land of wealth and excess. Sun, surf, beautiful people. But of course California is large and full of many regions and not all who live there dwell in a glittering paradise. Chelsea Bieker’s short story collection is set in the Central Valley of California. Her characters are working class, most often living in poverty. The teens and children who people her stories are largely limited in their futures – quite often by their own parents. The adults are stuck in the same towns where they grew up, sometimes crime seeming to be their only escape. The stories are somewhat linked, joined by their location but also with a few characters popping up in more than one story. I thought this was done well and gave those characters an extra depth as we got to see them from more than one perspective. Bieker uses a variety of characters and perspectives and though the stories shared a similar tone, they all felt distinct too.
In “Cowboys and Angels”, our narrator seems to become increasingly unhinged (or perhaps we increasingly recognize her insane behaviour) as she pursues a cowboy she believes she is destined to be with. “Say Where She Is” details the sort of intense and suffocating friendship of teen girls that many of us might recognize, with the narrator slowly revealing what she really knows about her best friend’s disappearance. In “Keep Her Down” two women – ex-wives of the same man – move in together to care for the special needs sister of one of them. A theme that runs through the collection is a character (a mother or a sister usually) caring for someone else when they are entirely incapable of doing so and can barely take care of their own needs. Bieker treats these characters gently though; these are stories of abuse, no doubt, and at times are hard to read. But despite the obvious failings of these caregivers, Bieker deftly reveals the ways that they in turn have been failed. How can you learn to be a parent when you yourself were never cared for?
Dare I say that this was a heartbreaking collection? That is, in the end, the word that best comes to mind. Heartbroke is peopled with characters who cannot escape. Who do not know how to escape. Who, when they try to escape, are pulled back in with greater violence. Many of them are despicable but Bieker writes them so well and so honestly that I so badly wanted them to succeed, to be happy, to be a little less heartbroken.