The Loss of All Lost Things, by Amina Gautier. Denver, Colorado: Elixir Press. 216 pages. $19.00, paper.
Winner of the Elixir Press 2014 Fiction Award, Gautier’s collection The Loss of all Lost Things centers, not surprisingly, around loss. These stories are populated with characters navigating the losses accrued in their pasts and dealing with their echoing effects in the present. Gautier doesn’t waste her time on the small losses—keys, pocketbooks—but goes for the big guns, moving into the territory of stark grief: missing children, dissolving marriages, the losses of innocence in such irrefutable and irreversible ways the characters aren’t allowed easy reprieves. While the losses hit big, the nuance resides in the characters’ reactions, their decisions, small as they may seem, to revise how they read the situations. In the opening story “Lost and Found,” about a boy abducted by “Thisman,” the boy refuses to see his situation as hopeless:
He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk. He hates to think of himself as an easily snatched up thing—a carton of milk off a lunch tray, a pencil off a desk, a cookie from a jar.
But as much as the characters in Gautier’s collection recognize that, while all loss is not created equal, they also realize you also can’t intellectualize your way out of suffering. In the title story, told by the parents of the abducted boy, the mother of the missing child tries to rationalize her grief by remembering “they are not the first to suffer loss.” To put their trials in perspective, she tries to remember everything from the deaths at Pompeii to teeth under the pillow. “They make these lists to humble themselves, remembering the way their parents attempted to cure picky eating habits with reminders of children starving in Africa, but the same tactic didn’t work. Try as they might to think of others who have it worse, all that they can think of is themselves.”
In some instances, the characters realize the loss is all they have left, and to let that pain go would be to lose the thing completely. In “Cicero Waiting,” about a couple dealing with the death of their child, Gautier writes from the father’s perspective about his wife: “She believed that they could heal. She wanted him to help her get through this, but he couldn’t even help himself. He didn’t want her to forgive him. He didn’t want them to be strong.”
Over and over, one of Gautier’s strengths is that she creates characters with real and full lives. Along with these irrefutable losses, they have other children to raise, families to keep, jobs to work. These stories are filled with academics, librarians, operators, and other professionals working jobs are not just random ways the characters spend their time, but often the key to how they process the world. In “A Brief Pause,” a woman in a college admissions office describes the best way to let students know they have been denied admission:
The trick to delivering bad news is to be swift about it, so that the surprise tempers the pain. When they call me to the phone, I know it is not personal, though there is a person on the other end. I look at the prospective’s name on the file on the screen before me, knowing I will never use it. I do not get overly familiar. I begin with “I regret to inform you,” and, after reading our form denial letter to them, I pause—deliberately—to give them time to make sense of what I have said. On the other end, they are pausing too, to see if there is more, to see if there has been a mistake, to see if I will take it back, to see if we have enough space to squeeze in one additional student. When it is clear that there is nothing else, they thank me and hang up. I always let them hang up first. It is better that way; it gives the callers a sense of empowerment, makes them feel as if they are the ones doing the rejecting, after all. Sometimes, after the brief pause, they do not say thank you. Instead, they slam down the phone. Sometimes, they hang up before I even finish, but I never make it personal. I am good at what I do.
The crux of the story is that the woman has gone to her mother-in-law’s apartment to clean it out after her death. Her husband is unable to cope with such a task. The description of her job is a way to explain why she is better equipped for this chore, but Gautier smartly comes back to this at the end, after an emotional moment when her husband says he can’t continue, a moment when she has to empathize more than she might normally, when “there is no script for this moment.” The story ends on this powerful note:
If I listen closely, I can hear the rejected applicants when they cry. During that pause, while they are waiting for me to undo what I have done, I can hear them pull themselves together. When they thank me before hanging up, their voices—tremulous and confused—give it away. They clear their throats, struggle to make themselves seem unaffected, but if you listen, you can hear how hard it is to let go.
Gautier covers a lot of ground in this short collection. Characters span classes and races and degrees of loss. The stories here show that, no matter the hardships suffered by these characters, many are willing to keep trying, to keep working to either gain back their losses or hold tightly to what they have. Despite what we have lost, there is an echo of hope that maybe, possibly, we are headed for better futures.
Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.