I bought two books before I left — Tough Decisions: How a Good Manager Handles Being the Bad Guy and Broken Trust: Recovering from Infidelity. Not long before I learned about the reorganization, my husband had confessed that he was cheating on me. Unlike my bosses, at least Kyle convened his news in person, although he didn’t look me in the eye. I couldn’t fathom how I would restructure either my department or my marriage. In my desperation, I could only buy books.
(from “Rest of World” in Forgetting English, page 81)
It takes a lot of talent to write a truly good short story. You have to develop your characters in so few pages, eliminate all extraneous details, and grab readers from the very beginning. You must choose your words carefully because there will be so few of them, and you must add richness and layers to the story by getting readers to read between the lines so they can really get to know the characters and their motives and understand all the things you’d spell out for them if only you were writing a novel. These are what I believe to be the ingredients for the perfect short story, but alas, so many of the ones I’ve read over the years fail to satisfy me.
Crafting a short story is an art that many are unable to master, but Midge Raymond has penned 10 stories that captivated me from start to finish. I don’t think I’ve ever gushed about a short story collection before, but Forgetting English is probably the best one I’ve read so far. The stories in Forgetting English are connected in that each of the main characters is either living or traveling far from home and no longer know who they really are.
I enjoyed all 10 of the stories in Forgetting English, but a few stood out as my favorites. “The Road to Hana” is about a couple vacationing in Hawaii to celebrate their anniversary, but the wife’s revelations about a piece of jewelry her husband has never seen her wear leads to a revelation of his own and causes them to question whether they really know one another. In “The Ecstatic Cry,” a woman studying penguins on Antarctica encounters a troubled stranger and deals with loneliness. In “First Sunday,” a woman visits her sister who stayed in Tonga after her stint with the Peace Corps ended, and as she oversteps cultural boundaries and struggles with the tension in their relationship, she realizes they both are keeping secrets. And in “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean,” a nanny on a Hawaiian vacation with the family must care for her two young charges while preoccupied with her failed acting career.
Raymond does a wonderful job giving us a peek at the lives of these characters, but don’t expect a happy ending. These characters have wounds both physical and mental, and Raymond has them dealing with infidelity (as both the victim and the adulterer), cutting, unemployment, and much loss and grief. They are trying to navigate unfamiliar landscapes, both in their travels and in their lives. In few words, Raymond conveys a myriad of emotions, brilliantly showcasing anger and despair, passion and betrayal, grief and helplessness. The characters are neither good nor bad, and even though Raymond never neatly ties up the loose ends of their tattered lives, I finished each story believing that hope was within their grasp.
Forgetting English, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, takes readers on a journey around the world and examines both sense of self and sense of place. It’s a book I will recommend to people who insist they don’t like short stories, who say they can’t feel connected to the characters or settings in short fiction. At 150 pages, I finished it during one day’s work commute, so surely it’s short enough to at least give it a try.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.