- Lost Again
160 Pages; Print, $13.99
Carole Burns, author of The Missing Woman and Other Stories, has appropriately named the book after the first story in the collection. This selection of these all too human and recognizable tales of marriage, children, affairs, divorce and general restlessness in a predominantly domestic setting is no random compilation, but a precise, almost clinical look at the emotional landscape of womanhood in the contemporary world. The thread that ties these stories together is the attempt at answering some of the oldest questions in an increasingly fluid world, and the answers sometimes are obvious, sometimes ephemeral. Today, the burden and the safety of human life’s traditional trajectory have been undermined, so that the expected milestones in a woman’s life are no longer solid, foundational, or the main factor that determines her worth and identity. She no longer has to feel guilt for wanting to start all over, though that new freedom comes with a sense of loss. Gone is the solid point of reference a woman used to have in the expected pattern of marriage and children, and happiness no longer hinges solely on how successfully she creates such an identity. “Woman” (capital Woman) is missing, and what is left is the (sometimes painful) awareness that a woman’s identity always comes from within, not from the mold she fills within her social realm.
The author invites us to converse with her characters, to the point that there are metafictional moments when the narrator will ask the reader to admit to his or her readerly expectations. In “The One I Will,” the narrator pauses from telling her story of a two-year long relationship with a man not ready to settle, and asks readers directly: “But you want me to get to the point, don’t you? To the culmination of my story. You want to know if, this time…Are you too shy to ask now?” First, she offers a lie in response: “What if I told you we fell in love and lived merrily ever after”—only to reveal later that the love story did not last.
The game of narrative expectations feels refreshing and disruptive, even though, in fact, many of the characters do follow the trajectory that their friends, family, and (it turns out) readers want them to take. But the stories don’t end there. In fact, this is where each story becomes something else, something more profound and more unsettling, as each character seems to ask: if I got to this point and now I am wife/mother, what part of myself will I never get back? The titular story, “The Missing Woman,” is subtle in the way in which it sets up the metaphor for the rest of the book, yet the point is not hard to decipher. In this story, Jill’s responsibility of caring for her two children while on a family bike ride prevents her from helping two other women look for a sister and friend who has been missing for five days. Jill’s final realization is that a part of her can never be retrieved, as making life choices means leaving behind whatever does not fit one’s current identity. Just as in Frost’s “The Road not Taken,” which the author references directly in the three-part story at the end of the collection, Jill cannot go back to her former self: “She wondered if her regret over not stopping would make her stop the next time. And she knew it wouldn’t, and her regret turned inward.”
Such questions haunt other women portrayed in the book; the writer’s choice of an omniscient narrative gives us the freedom to observe the torment of several characters in each story—mostly the woman and the man involved in a relationship. True enough, the male characters are not settled in their identities either, and always find themselves looking for something else, something more. Yet for female characters to be portrayed as restless and adventurous as a matter of course...