Luis Jaramillo’s The Doctor’s Wife is a collection of short stories that reads saga captured in tableaux. This is a family narrative in 91 arresting and varied compositions halved into two parts, in which our narrator is the grandson of the Doctor’s Wife and the majority of the book is comprised of stories from his mother’s childhood. It’s a thrill to watch Jaramillo flirt with the range of breviloquence possible in prose. Some stories are as short as a conversation in three exchanges:
“I was only depressed for, like, 40 years,” Petrea says to me.
“Because of John?”
“Because of John.”
Other stories last for eight pages of sensuous prose and crystal dialogue. On a father-son fishing trip, the Doctor, our father archetype, instructs his thirteen year-old son how to perform an emergency tracheotomy, after an accident occurs:
“If I pass out, I need you to help me,” the Doctor says to his son. He takes a knife out of the tackle box, and a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket, removing the ink reservoir from the pen’s casing. He take’s Bob’s hand and guides his finger to the place between the Adam’s apple and the cricoid cartilage. “With the knife, make a half-inch slit, pinch the cut, and then poke the tube through the hole. I’ll regain consciousness when I can breathe again.”
“OK,” Bob says, drawing his hand to his own throat.
In layering the palimpsest of a family saga, Jaramillo toys with the plasticity of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. Because this is a collection of short stories, the narrative is cut loose from any obligation to maintain a consistent perspective. And so the narrator jumps roles throughout the course of the book: from third person omniscient, slipping to first person, and then embodying the implied author, as he steps forward into character himself.
Consistently, however, whether invisible or materialized, the narrator is a gleaner of family lore, a spelunking next-gen come to raid the larder shelving his family’s most heirloom stories. He takes the backbone of a legacy to re-invent and re-create what existed long before his memory took shape. Then he brings his characters in as adults for comment. In a reference to this process, the narrator’s aunt, a character featured prominently in the first half of the book, is interviewed in the second half. She deigns the self-referential book a collection of “confabulated family stories.” The narrator responds graciously: “I wrack my brain. What does “confabulated” mean? I look it up. To confabulate in the psychological sense is to make up stories to compensate for the loss of memory, which is correct in a way.” Correct, in the sense that those who were there are presenting the confluence of their experience and their memories, impossible to cleave one from the other. But, incorrect, in another way, for the narrator was not present for this history of his mother’s youth, and so all is the craft of invention. A parable for the art of writing story.
Luis Jaramillo knows his way around prose like a dancer knows the edges of his stage. Each story is cut from the fabric of a family history, and shaped into its own form. If The Doctor’s Wife were a family quilt, it would be of the Gee school, wildly inventive and varied, but crafted with perfect tiny stitches.