Review of Caitlin Horrocks’ This Is Not Your City

Caitlin Horrocks. This is Not Your City. Sarabande Books. July, 1 2011. Paperback, 168 pp., $15.95

Make the familiar strange, the strange familiar. One of the primary struggles the fiction writer undertakes is to bring “true surprise” to the page – an element of plot or character or a particular voice that on the one hand is unexpected, and on the other hand is completely honest to the world the author has created. Caitlin Horrocks is clearly a writer who takes this struggle seriously. Every story in her debut collection This Is Not Your City aims to startle. From the bizarre premise of a reincarnated bank worker in Des Moines encountering characters that she remembers from her one hundred twenty-six past lives to the subverted expectations in the story of a young teacher punishing her students in creative and perverse ways, Horrocks throws her readers off balance from story to story, page to page.

Overall, this endeavor pays out with dividends. “This Is Not Your City,” the eponymous tale in the collection, stakes out dramatic ground in what is to the majority of readers––and, one might assume, to Horrocks as well––unfamiliar territory: a Russian mail-order bride living in Finland discovers that her fifteen-year old daughter has gone missing after a camping trip with her boyfriend. The first two-thirds of the story offers very little in the way of dramatic action; the main character, Daria, occupies herself with desultory cooking and cleaning while we learn through exposition the events that have led up to the present. And yet the slow pacing does no harm here. On the contrary, it allows us to plumb the depths of Daria’s loneliness in a “marriage [that] is a gaping hush, an unraveling hole that cannot be darned” (139) and to stare mutely at the walls separating her from her daughter, her husband, and the society outside the home in which she lives as a stranger. Having clearly outlined the contours of her character’s world, Horrocks delivers a plot twist in the last third of the story that is deeply satisfying for feeling both unexpected and inevitable.

Three other stories take place outside the United States, and indeed, these are among the strongest in the collection. Horrocks seems to strike the perfect balance between the outwardly unfamiliar and the emotionally honest when she takes her characters abroad. Daria’s isolation as a Russian bride in Finland harkens back to the book’s third story, “Going to Estonia.” In that tale, a young woman moves from the backcountry of northern Finland to the bright lights of Helsinki where, displaced and lonely, she succumbs to the charms of her rakish downstairs neighbor. Horrocks’ talent for combining simple, direct statements with fresh, evocative description is apparent on the very first page, depicting Ursula’s interaction with her seatmate on the bus ride down to the city:

“…At a highway rest stop outside Kemi, the boy stood outside the men’s
toilets puffing out great gouts of air, trying to step forward into the clouds before they disappeared. He had a strange, flat face, and as Ursula watched him choke with laughter at his own breath she thought there was something wrong with him…Back on the bus, the boy introduced himself.

She told him her name and he wrote it unevenly in the moisture on the window, with the R pointed backward. ‘You’re pretty, Ursula,’ he said.

She looked away; it wasn’t true” (33).

As the title suggests, the story features a trip to Estonia, but it is Ursula’s discomfort in her own skin––as reflected in her estrangement from her new home in the capital––that is at its heart.

The two other stories in the book that take place overseas, “The Lion Gate” and “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui,” feature Americans trying to escape troubles back home. The main character in “The Lion Gate” is burdened by a deep, long-growing desperation that has rendered her numb long before we encounter her; taken out of her normal environment, this numbness ebbs and the pain becomes suddenly focused. The emotional territory explored here may be familiar to many readers––Renee, a single woman approaching middle age, struggles with the fact that her chance to have children is rapidly slipping away––and yet the story is in no way a cliché. Rather, the strength of Horrocks’ prose and the depth of her vision ensures that Renee’s tale affects us as if we have never heard anything like it.

The final tale in the book portrays the deep-seeded desperation of its characters to very different effect. When Somali pirates take the cruise ship on which Wil and Lucy Voorhuis are taking a vacation from caring for their severely disabled son, the event is drained of its terror for Lucy:

“If there was to be at some point a separation of sheep and lambs, wheat and chaff, the passengers who would be spared and those who would be executed, she thought she and Wil should volunteer themselves. They were qualified hostages, years of experience. They wouldn’t protest. They could be shuttled and shuffled and they would do it with, if not love, a numb contentment” (161).

Such a direct statement of metaphor is potentially risky, but Horrocks very wisely places it late in the text, at which point we’ve spent enough time with the characters to believe not only the feeling, but their awareness of the feeling. In this way, the moment in which Horrocks shows her hand becomes an organic epiphany for her main character. The story as a whole, meanwhile, reflects the intention behind every tale in This Is Not Your City: to reach beyond the mundane, to cast the line into those deeper waters of the imagination far out from the shore, and to find there the true thing that makes this strange place so familiar.

Molly Patterson's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, Salamander, Arkansas Review, and Zone 3. She is currently at work on a novel.