Bodies Testing Boundaries: The Worlds We Think We Know by Dalia Rosenfeld

Reviewed By

In Dalia Rosenfeld’s beautiful debut story collection, The Worlds We Think We Know, there is a prevalent theme of foreign bodies testing boundaries, rendered through wonderfully crafted vignettes and longer narratives in which vivid scenes show us the clarity, satisfaction, or longing we experience when attempting to get to know someone. The collection plays with relationships in all their forms: how people connect, disconnect, and try to connect with each other and with their surroundings.

But Worlds isn’t a typical slice-of-life story collection, and it is Rosenfeld’s mastery of craft that makes each story notable. Readers are plunged into that difficult-to-attain space between conventional and magical realism, a space where each moment is heightened through Rosenfeld’s careful choice of language, dialogue, and scene structure.

In these twenty short stories, readers can better understand those distinct borders of culture and heritage, particularly Jewish cultural identity, through the eyes of Rosenfeld’s characters. In most of the narratives, there is a weight of Judaic history carried by the characters, with Jewish history serving as a background to who they are or how they found themselves in their current situations. In “The Worlds We Think We Know,” the story begins with an American woman’s regular visits to an elderly Holocaust survivor’s home, for no explicit purpose, it seems, than to connect with the old man and spend time with him. The woman becomes romantically involved with a soldier who also has a connection to the elderly man. In “Flight,” a Jewish college student is head over heels for a Jewish boy named Danny. She decides to hold a private piano concert for him, but must navigate the tensions strung between her own identity, Danny’s ambivalence, and her closest friend and supporter, Kyo, who is clearly in love with her. In “Daughters of Respectable Houses,” an intellectual housewife is determined to fix up her new acquaintance Sophie, a modern Israel historian, with a nice man while Sophie is scholar-in-residence in the States. But when the question of Sophie’s sexual orientation arises in conversation, the narrator must question her own assumptions of love, freedom and partnership.

Rosenfeld’s stories are primarily told from the first-person views of different women, their names withheld, their narratives set in sometimes unnamed locations: they could be young women sitting next to any of us on the bus, walking down a sidewalk, or socializing in a cafe in the United States or in Israel. The location informs the atmospheric details for each character’s situation in which she finds herself, but it is ultimately the relationships and human interactions in each story that drive the collection. This is Rosenfeld’s gift through her craft: she heightens our longing to cross borders into belonging, to make the foreign experience more intimate through detailed scenes and surreal, pitch-perfect dialogue. Rosenfeld takes the notion of place—whether it is an American woman visiting Jerusalem or a young girl growing up in Paris—and sets it in the background as an additional layer for the reader to enjoy. The author draws attention to the interactions between two people and the ways we place—or attempt to place—ourselves into each other’s lives.

To draw that focus to how relationships develop, Rosenfeld introduces exquisite dialogue that feels almost too polished, too well-timed, which can grab the reader’s attention with its surreal quality. In “Vignette of the North,” a tomato stall clerk named Simona becomes fascinated with her sidewalk neighbor, a talented painter. She longs to insert herself into his life and become a muse, a subject of his art. One day she approaches him to begin a conversation:

“The painter was drinking a bottle of water now and wincing as the cold liquid hit his teeth. ‘The last dentist I went to had a better eye than me,’ he said. ‘He saw a whole menagerie of savage animals feeding on my gums. The farther back he looked, the more species he saw.’

‘That’s quite a vivid description.’

‘You should have seen the bill.’”

In “The Gown,” a new mother navigates the small daily challenges of life after giving birth. Once discharged and home from the hospital, she decides to order a pizza. The delivery man arrives and sits down on the couch, waiting for the woman to fish out her checkbook and present payment. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be an important scene, but in Rosenfeld’s hands, every piece of dialogue speaks on another level:

“I wrote out a check for eleven dollars and placed it on the table. ‘How many pizzas do you get to take home every night?’ I asked.

The delivery man got up from the couch and unzipped a gray plastic pouch. ‘I could take home two of whatever’s left, usually green pepper or onion, but I only eat food that existed in the time of the Bible, and pizza’s not one of them.’

I lifted a slice of pizza from the box. ‘That must be an incredible burden.’

The delivery man shrugged and walked around the room as I ate. ‘Nothing in life should be a burden,’ he said, pressing his nose against a bay window.”

The opening lines of each story are another of the collection’s greatest strengths. The author opens each story without flourish or poetics but carefully chooses words to draw the reader in. In “Daughters of Respectable Houses,” the narrator opens with, “I’m not sure why I spotted Sophie’s coat before I spotted Sophie, since her coat was arguably the least compelling thing about her.” And in “Flight,” the story opens: “Kyo was waiting outside the practice room to accompany me to lunch, just as he waited every morning to accompany me to breakfast, or to class, or to the conservatory, where he often stood within earshot for the duration of my lesson, the cast of his shadow silhouetted against the door.”

Relationships can be awkward, horrible, and heartbreaking, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. Readers may be surprised to see darker topics laced with Rosenfeld’s wit and humor. These moments become a breather in otherwise claustrophobic, intimate situations. In “Flight,” as the narrator and Kyo walk together into the kosher co-op for lunch after music lessons, the narrator observes: “Inside, the Jews were at it again—that is, Danny, the most visible Jew among the kosher co-oppers, with his black velvet kippah and wispy beard, was already retaliating one of the daily assaults on his identity, delaying our lunch by several critical minutes.”

In “Floating on Water,” the unnamed narrator discusses her new-bud relationship with her friend Prema.

“‘Either this guy I’m seeing is a complete loser, or I am,’ I said, trying to interpret the dream for myself. ‘Which do you think it is?’

‘Have you lived a life of sacrifice and charity?’ Prema pressed.”

Rosenfeld also plays with the boundaries of epiphany. Each character is capable of introspection for her situation, whether in the immediate moment of playing a piano solo for two men—one she loves, the other who loves her with unrequited determination—or reflecting back upon a beloved music teacher after heartbreak. In “Floating on Water,” the narrator becomes involved with David, her coworker. “David was handsome, I could not deny that; he was the kind of man who would wake up in the morning to examine his chin in the mirror and end up lingering over the rest of his face.”

The Worlds We Think We Know is a profound debut that carefully undermines the foundational assumptions we have about other people. Those closest to us, no matter how we want to control the situation, can slip away like sand. We think we know someone and can emotionally reach them when, in actuality, their invisible histories keep us at arm’s length. Or we suddenly realize more about a stranger’s deepest vulnerabilities through a passing interaction than we could ever realize about ourselves. After reading Dalia Rosenfeld’s collection, I personally was left wondering where the borders of our lives and cities begin and end, and who built them in the first place.

There are distinct borders in cultural identity: ones we draw around ourselves to feel secure and like we belong, as well as ones that history has drawn for us, whether we like it or not. Dalia Rosenfeld is not afraid to plunge into empathic, fictional explorations of those borders between regions, cities, apartments, and most importantly—people.

Catherine Campbell's writing appears in the New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Millions, Writer's Digest, Ploughshares, Brain, Child Magazine, Arcadia, and elsewhere. She lives in Asheville, NC with her son and her partner. Find her on Twitter at @thecatcampbell and visit her website, More from this author →