The Island Dwellers: Stories by Jen Silverman

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I am concerned because Camilo is inherently clumsy with things like words and money and other people’s feelings.

I devoured these interconnected stories that are about being shipwrecked in loneliness yet in constant motion, and every character seems to be in a sort of emotional underground. There was something so funny to me about Girl Canadian Shipwreck, the performance art had me laughing about the discomfort the girlfriend feels when she’s meant to rally support for her lover, at her desire to escape the very thing her boyfriend feels so passionate about. White People is perfection as Cynthia falls for Venezuelan Elias, and builds in her mind such ridiculous cultural clichés that you can’t feel bad for her in the least. Tired of white conversations, the rich meals and the sterile, privileged life she was living, Cynthina imagines (while in the process of divorce from her husband Seth) how different a life she could lead, now that she’s found Elias. There is meat to a bohemian existence, so what if she has to forsake creature comforts? But does she really? Can’t she just return to wealth, isn’t this just ‘slumming’ for her, so very brave she imagines she is for this love? Can she really remove herself from her charmed life, can someone’s ‘ethnicity’ rub off on you?  Isn’t he just another ‘exotic dish’ she orders? I love the reaction Elias has later when he uncovers the past Cynthia has invented for him. There isn’t a story in this collection that failed to engage me with intelligence, humor or devastating sorrow. Whether characters were adrift, spinning in circles, begging for love or using it to manipulate as a means for survival, I was invested in the outcome.

Expats living in Japan deal with more than complicated relationships, there is the threat of the yakuza shadowing lovers when one becomes a kept woman. A body in a suitcase manages to be a sexy date story for a girl named Rachel in Wolf. Love hotels paint the scene in Mamushi,  where a tale of  brutal sexuality encompasses a tender love story that explains so much about the distance inside of Ancash. Love that can’t be spoken, something broken inside of Ancash that makes him cold, the desperate violent desire he inspires in others, so many  swoon for him but the one he loves, wanting nothing more than to keep him for their own. Ancash appears to have a fluid sexuality, but there is someone, only one person whom really has teeth in his heart, and doesn’t even know it. Because sometimes the one you want to understand you can’t, and you protect them from yourself.

Some of the stories are light and funny until the next tale plunges you into the dark, disturbing pain of other characters yet all of them are equally captivating. There is so much said in every terrible choice made. There is avoidance in easy blindness, in what we project unto each other neglecting to really see what is inside of someone. We all do it, to some degree. It’s hard to review this collection because the tales are all different, though they are connected and unique.

 Pike interestingly had me remembering one of my favorite biographies, it is mentioned in the story. Lover of Unreason by Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev, about the woman who came between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill. If you get a chance, read it, you won’t be disappointed.  I was tickled to read about Assia Wevill again, as I swallowed the afore-mentioned biography years ago, Silverman’s story about Cora was like a confection, poisoned by the ‘other woman’ that gives rise to another Assia. Innocuous meetings are often the ones we should pay attention to, as they can be the beginning or ending of our own love stories. Much like Hughes and Plath, a woman named Cora enters the colony of artists and stirs more than passions, is such a powerful presence that she cannot be ignored, nor her magnetic appeal denied. Is she an act? Cora resembles Assia in her hunger and need for company, that bottomless pit that can never be filled. “She’s like a tornado, everything she touches ends in destruction.” The highs and lows of love, the gaping wounds of betrayal, that ever-present other… other woman, other man, other something we all face in relationships, fuels the story and is painfully relatable, if your eyes are open. When love is young and fresh, we don’t notice the looming threats waiting to brutalize it. A tale of trust and it’s absence, the Pike is the perfect ending to this gorgeous collection of biting, intelligently written stories. Yes, add this to your to be read pile! I cannot wait to hear what other readers take from it!

Publication Date: May 1, 2018

Random House

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