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  • Life’s Beauty & Hardships
  • Judith Podell (bio)
My Life as a Mermaid
Jen Grow
Dzanc Books
144 Pages; Paper, $14.95

I like to divide short stories into two fundamental types: tales-those stories where the true subject is fate—and bulletins from the front lines of “How We Live Now.” Although I can be captivated by fabulists and seduced by sheer storytelling power, the short story writers I’m most partial to these days are the ones who write about the bewildering present with empathy and panache: Anne Enright and Mary Gaitskill, for example. Jen Grow won me over with her very first sentences in My Life as a Mermaid, winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition. Global awareness has never seemed more poignant:

I get another letter from my sister who is in Honduras riding mules and skidding around the muddy mountain roads in a pickup truck. The roads have curves sharp enough to invite death, sharp enough to see yourself leaving. When the priest drives, she writes, he is the real danger, his faith too strong to be cautious.

How impossible it seems to her that these worlds are connected: her sister Kay’s life as a medical relief worker in Honduras and her own, the world of “marriage, motherhood and matching socks,” and that both lives connect to a shared childhood. Passionate swimmers, they used to pretend to be mermaids holding underwater tea parties. She’s tried to teach her children to jump waves and dive, but they stick to the shallows, fearful around water like their father. Kay writes of swimming in rivers surrounded by mango trees, but it’s her own ordinary life that seems stranger. Some days she feels like she’s living at the bottom of an aquarium, littered with toys; Gulliver pinned down by Lilliputians, Gulliver with responsibilities: “I ask, how on earth can I, from here, straighten up the world? Absorb all the spills.” With heartsick distractedness she writes letters to her sister that she forgets to mail, stuffs small checks to UNICEF into pre-addressed envelopes, and tries to sensitize her family to the conditions of the world’s poor in ways that won’t undermine their health. She serves rice and onions for dinner—it’s what Kay eats in Honduras, and it’s a meal traditionally eaten by hand. The children love the chance to dispense with table manners and eat dinner with their fingers instead of forks. This is play for them, not an educational experience, and even she recognizes how impossible it is to pretend she is anywhere but in her own home.

“You’re suffering from guilt,” my husband tells me. “Did you call your therapist?” It’s not guilt, I want to explain. “It’s something else.”

Grow’s sentences have sharp curves and the rhythm of a fast ride on a narrow bumpy road. Every word does the work of five. With wit, nerve and a sure hand at the wheel, she takes us to dangerous places like Motel swimming pools, deathbeds, and other rough neighborhoods, in the company of desperate women facing moments of truth; “unsympathetic characters” some of them, like the cheating wife in “Stray,” the free-lance home-wrecker of “I Get There Late” or the alcoholic mother in “What Girls Leave Behind” who engage our sympathy immediately with their fierce honesty and sense of the absurd. This is what it’s like to raise two daughters and lose custody:

Some days I was sick and couldn’t lift my head from the pillow, and some days I was moody and strong, the wrong side of a storm. They’d play games with each other: you be the vampire this time, but NO biting.”OK.” Then, two minutes later, a scream.

This is what the underside of life looks like: Death is clumsy, full of vomit and laughter, and awkward moments of forgiveness. A suburban driveway can be a mine field while some of the roughest neighborhoods may contain unexpected amenities, like the abandoned truck in “Joe Blow,” home for a pair of companionable alcoholics, neighborhood sentinels, de-facto uncles/babysitter to...


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