This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr
This story was dense and literary with a slow-build to a quiet conclusion. It was not to my usual taste at all. I didn’t much care for the protagonist. It had several elements that usually make me roll my eyes. And yet when I got to the end of this story, I immediately wanted to read it again.
The language slowed me down, but not in a way that annoyed me. The exact meaning was often opaque, but through repetition, the author showed me how to read it and understand it. It was an odd experience, and I really liked it.
I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph—or rather, what was being done to her—just that when I saw it for the first time, in a museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead for five years.Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light
Well. Isn’t that intriguing? We don’t know anything about the characters before this opening line, but all of a sudden we know quite a lot.
- We have the voice of the narrator, clear in our heads.
- We know their mother has been dead for a while.
- We know the mother had some kind of secret life.
In a story that keeps coming back to questions of truth and trust, this is a great opening on that level alone.
But this opening also creates suspense and tension, and raises questions to keep us from flicking on to the next story in the collection, or pulling out our phones and browsing social media.
- Why didn’t the narrator know about this picture?
- What was the mother doing (or having done to her)? (We will find out, if we read the story carefully)
- Why is this unknown picture hanging in a museum.
- What kind of relationship did the protagonist have with her mother (and how will it mirror or differ from our own)?
Was it enough to keep me reading? Absolutely!
Before the end of the first page the author mentions email, to ground us in a time and place (here and now), and we know what kind of work the protagonist does (“when an acquaintance or the administrator at the college where I teach saw my eyes on my phone…”) so we can make some assumptions about her and where she fits in her society.
I’m grounded in the story and intrigued enough to turn the page.
The Plot Thickens
The story begins with to the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, and explores that for a while, before broadening out and reviewing her relationships with other significant people in her life (mostly her husband and her father), as well as the events leading up to and surrounding her discovery of her mother’s picture in the museum.
This discovery is what I call the fulcrum of the story, the moment around which everything in this character’s life revolves (for the duration of the story, at least). It allows us to explore her past and present, and speculate on her future, but none of this would have happened without the discovery of the picture.
The early parts of the story also explore her relationship with the world—and her recurring thoughts about how she might leave it.
The author also begins to seed the story with the narrator’s thoughts on suicide, in a really interesting way. It’s undramatic. The potential methods simply pop up, the way they might in her mind, triggered by something she’s telling us about. At first I didn’t know what these sentences mean but, with repetition, I began to understand what she was really saying.
The story keeps circling back the to the question of the photograph of her mother.
When the writer doesn’t get the answers she needs from other sources, she goes to the one person who might be able to help: her father. It’s already been established that her parents weren’t big on transparency, so of course, her father’s first reaction is one of obfuscation.
But, suddenly, there is a moment when her father acts uncharacteristically. The reader can feel something coming:
- Will it be a moment of honesty?
- Will it have an impact on our narrator and the trajectory of her life?
- Will it be life-changing?
The author doesn’t, in my opinion, tie this up in a bow for us, but she does give us more than enough information for us to reach our own conclusions.
It’s a very satisfying ending.
The prose is dense and literary, in a way that often annoys me, but in this story it manages not to. Perhaps it’s because the author intersperses dense, literary rumination with straightforward, stark lines.
Look at how different the first sentence is from the second.
It is true that there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup, really be capable of suicide?Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light
I came to see that the dense, convoluted language was a necessary part of the story, with all it’s tricky examination of truth and trust. Can we really trust a narrator who says that her husband:
…began not to trust me on issues I saw as unrelated: what a neighbor had said about a vine that grew up our shared fence, a letter from the electric company that I claimed to have left on his desk.”Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light
That “claimed” makes me question everything she’s just said, too.
On Training The Reader
Novelists often say they approach the middle of each new novel with dread because, although they’ve written novels before, they’ve never written this novel before, and every book teaches you how to write it.
I suspect that short stories, being the weird and varied form that hey are, have a similar opportunity. But in this case, you get to teach the reader how to read the story.
Short story readers enjoy this challenge, this puzzle. After all, unless you pick up a short story collection that promises to be a collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies, the reader never really knows what they’re getting. Even a collection of ‘mystery stories’ or ‘science fiction stories’ can contain everything from a story composed entirely of tweets, to a traditional narrative story, to a story told in reverse; the tones and subject-matters will be all over the place, along with the style of telling.
In this story, Kathleen Alcott trains us to understand what’s going on when her paragraph suddenly end with a location, an object and a person who needs to be warned what they are about to encounter. It’s subtle. She doesn’t explain it. But the repetition invites the reader to puzzle out the connections.
(It’s not a happy topic or one I recommend writing about, but it was very well done, in this story!)
She also trains us to start looking for examples of truth and mistrust, so that when the moment approaches that her father is going to tell her something true, we can feel it coming, in the way his behavior changes.
Are you using things like ‘email’ and the reactions of other people in the narrator’s life, to ground the reader in the story in the first few lines?
What elements are you worried your reader might miss? How might you train them to see what you want them to see?
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The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.