The stories in Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk often dwell in memory. Discontent characters search for something to hold on to, looking back to pieces of a family that never quite fit together in the first place. The characters are reflective, and usually something has gone wrong that is not quite fixable. We meet many of them following a divorce, a death, or in the midst of the lingering effects of some other implosion or loss. They all seem to be lacking, or searching, for a place to call home.
All of the stories possess a strong woman’s voice, with a simmering quality: the narrator may be telling the story in a quiet, somewhat subdued way, yet the reader has the sense throughout that these women are ready to scream.
The first story, “Appetite,” opens with a strong punch, packed with information: “In Val’s bedroom before Arthur Binder’s party, I have one of my black boots on my left foot, and one of my dead mother’s shoes—oxblood leather, two-inch heel—on my right. “Which one?” I ask Val.” “Appetite” goes on to capture a family’s coping in the aftermath of teenaged Claudia’s mother’s death from cancer: Claudia, and the relationship she embarks on with George, who she connects with at the party; her college-aged sister, Michelle, who leaves school and returns to the family’s New York City apartment (in a building that was once grand, but “now the floor dips right before the elevator, worn down by years of impatient waiting”) where she finds solace cooking and nourishing her family; and her father, who is tepidly dating, and adjusting to being a widow. The loss has left Claudia somewhat detached. She thinks of her relationship with George:
I lay claim to George for a little while, and then I let him go because I think it’s good practice for the rest of my life, because I think the longer you love someone the more it hurts, the more you have to imagine them in places they’ll never be again. I thought at some point in my life I’d stop having those dreams about my mother, dreams so stupid and small they could be memories, but they’re not: her sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car, or locking the front door, then checking her coat pocket for her wallet. I thought I understood a way around loss.
Lazarin writes beautifully about these feelings of loss, which she accurately shows as having no real way around it but through, as the adage goes. My mother died, also of cancer, this past year, and I read this story with extra interest, texting my sister at one point while reading: “This writer gets it.” I know these dreams, of seemingly banal moments that are so refreshing because you get to see your loved one again. Oh, there you are! I think every time I have one of these dreams. We’ve been looking for you; it all makes sense now. Kneeled outside on a lawn, playing with my nephew with sunglasses on, a window between us, or recently, swooping in to help us finish a project that we can’t (cleaning out her things, a task the family in this story also performs toward the end, before ordering a pizza). The family in “Appetite” uneasily stumbles through their new world in a lonely way, haunted by memories, in a way I think anyone who has suffered a loss can relate to.
Lazarin’s writing comes alive in other stories, too. One of my favorites in the collection, “The Holographic Soul,” ached with a visceral nostalgia. Two very close sisters, Hannah and V (in sixth grade and fifth, respectively), perform psychic tricks for other neighborhood children. The sisters are so close that when V shrugs, “her arm is still absently hooked through mine—she often forgets her limbs, as if they weren’t attached to her own body—and our shoulders lift together, conjoined twins.” They don’t have a pool membership because their parents “think it is an idle way to spend a summer, lying around on wet towels, eating snack bar French fries.” Reading this story, I could smell the chlorine and taste the salty fries by my own local pool as a child, and feel the ground sprinklers that tickled our feet as kids. V takes her psychic studies more seriously than Hannah, who narrates the story, though Hannah is more perceptive in picking up the signals from her parents on what is truly going on in their marriage. These are things that V doesn’t quite see yet, and she has a harder time when she learns them. When their mother’s somewhat suspicious behavior reaches a climax, it’s a painful moment for V. Hannah says: “As she shakes against me, I realize that she never saw it coming, and I should have told her something, I should have let her in.”
Hannah recalls a memory from childhood of her mother teaching the girls how to swim: “She’d stand in the shallow end and make a fortress around our bodies, moving as we moved down the length of the pool, always letting us think we were still connected when we weren’t.” Hannah recognizes a distance her mother has put between them before V does. Lazarin creates beautiful images, as Hannah recalls how happy her mother looked coming out of the Atlantic with her sister as the waves lifted them up and down. The story, which turns to an unexpected conclusion, is a reminder that the best short stories ask more questions than they answer.
A sense of brokenness and searching (or trying not to drown) within family dynamics fills other stories in the collection, like “Spider Legs,” which follows teenaged Caitlin, who lives in New York with her father and his “second chance family,” as she calls it—new wife, new baby—and visits her mother in Paris, where she is on a research fellowship. Caitlin was the baby born as her parents’ marriage ended, and in Paris, she is joined by her older siblings, Jack and Jill (a pair as tight as the one in the nursery rhyme), who had a front row seat to the destructive unraveling of the marriage that Caitlin was too young to remember. Jack and Jill experience more resentment over it. “Spider Legs” expertly teases out the alliances forged between siblings, as Caitlin feels as if she is the odd man out and works to impress them. The story details the tricky dynamics of a family in crisis, with the good somewhere underneath. Caitlin recalls a memory from her childhood in New York, before her mother has moved, when her mother taught the children how to lengthen their shadows in the streetlights as they walked one evening in Manhattan: “Mom, Jill, Jack and I would walk the dogs we picked out at the pound after the divorce on Central Park West, and I’d stretch my arms up so far I’d lose sight of my hands in the distance, and give myself long spider legs, thick and lengthy and strong as they weren’t yet.” Jack and Jill come up behind her, with their own spider shadow, to devour hers.
As the trip takes an expectedly sour turn, given what we know of the relationships, Lazarin delivers another powerful line: “The things I want I can’t will into existence: a version of my family that never was, a place we can all agree on as home.” Lazarin writes beautifully of this searching. There is hope, in this story and others in the collection, that people can find communities and belonging elsewhere, or a sense of home within themselves.
Some of the stories carry more weight than others, but all are written with care and beautiful language. In a one-sided conversation between a woman and her ex-lover in “Landscape No. 27,” her hair is described as “the color of a honey jar on a windowsill.” When hearing shattering news in “Hide and Seek,” the character “puts a hand over her lower stomach, but it doesn’t do anything to stop what feels like being on a tossing boat with the shore nowhere in sight.” In the same story, “the grass is still damp from some kid’s afternoon run through the sprinkler.”
Throughout the collection, characters fumble their way into new lives that were thrust upon them, and that they didn’t always choose, like in “Dinosaur,” about a man who lost his wife young, and the high school girl who babysits for his two children—or perhaps lives they did choose, but there is still a bit of emotional vertigo at how they got to where they are. In “Looking for a Thief,” a mother thinks: “There is nothing mind clearing about knowing you could drive forever, for days, for weeks, and not land anywhere far enough from your own life to pretend you can even imagine other choices.” This mother, while not unhappy per se, misses “that feeling of possibility, the unknowing.”
In the final story, “Second Chance Family,” the main character, fittingly named Hope, is just starting out in life and hasn’t quite found her place. She’s not thrilled about her job, and spends a lot of time helping out her older half-sister, Caitlin, who is pregnant and has more of the trappings of a “normal” life: house, husband, kids. Adrift, she meets a man about ten years her senior, who leads her on, and isn’t the anchor she longs for. When he takes a cab to her apartment directly from the airport after a trip, Hope thinks: “No one has ever come home to me. I know this isn’t what this is, but it’s close enough to give me a little ache for it, to let myself imagine a future that’s mine.” The story spans the length of Caitlin’s pregnancy, and, like this entire collection, is full of both nostalgia and hope for the future. Back Talk knows deep sadness, as characters try to hold on to something that is already lost, but also a sense of relief when they try to imperfectly let go.
In this powerful debut, Lazarin has written her heart out chronicling the lives of recognizable girls and women as they come of age, find their footing and chart their path through life’s curves, on their own terms. She takes the reader into the crevices and corners of these women’s minds, where you can accompany them on their daydreams as they leave or enter relationships, or just generally try to figure it all out. Their voices stay with you long after the final story.