Ancestry, by Eileen O’Leary. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, October 2020. 152 pages. $17.00, paper.
In her short story collection Ancestry, Eileen O’Leary invites us into the lives of characters who are searching for a sense of belonging in a world which she reveals to be often void of authentic human connection. We witness the futile attempts of an over-eager college student in “Adam,” as he desperately tries to form a relationship with his estranged father during a summer that they spend repairing a decrepit house together. In “The Flying Boat,” we travel with Vera, a young woman who leaves behind her family in Ireland to follow her lover to Argentina, who must grapple with figuring out her purpose once love proves to not be enough after all. Following the aftermath of a mental breakdown upon losing his wife, the protagonist of “The Emigrant” finds himself on a plane headed to Nepal, where his two sons are expecting him. We experience the disconnection and uncomfortableness he feels when sitting down for dinner with his sons and their friends.
These are just a few examples of characters from O’Leary’s stories that highlight the collection’s focus on protagonists who are struggling to find a sense of belonging in life. No matter where her characters end up, however, one thing is quite clear—their past always travels alongside them. More than just their pasts, O’Leary’s characters are often burdened by the decisions their ancestors made. Indeed, these characters seem to become products not only of their own decisions, but of the ones made by those who came before them. Thus, the theme of fate and the role it plays in the lives of these well-developed characters starts to surface and makes us wonder if any of these characters ever really had a choice in where they ended up.
Ancestry begins with a focus on death in the opening story, “Tid.” In this story, the unnamed protagonist is reflecting upon his career as a freelance embalmer while attending his son’s wedding. Through the use of the first-person, O’Leary delves into the protagonist’s relationship with his father, a Norwegian farmer who had wanted to see his son become a museum apprentice. We discover that it was through plans put in place by his father that the protagonist ended up in the funeral business in America. By using carefully crafted flashbacks, O’Leary reveals her character’s intimate relationship with the dead and his ability to consider his own mortality. Near the end of this story, the protagonist reflects upon how fast everything unfolded in his life:
Anyway, that was the beginning. A very long time ago. A small wedding in Malmö. I see myself for years half-dressed and running toward anyone crying. It didn’t seem that either of us had time to think. Then they left. When the first grandchild was born, Laura told me we were back in business. I will be dead in one year, though I was told months, six, possibly seven. The same thing that took my father.
O’Leary utilizes short sentences to give this story’s protagonist a voice of indifference towards his life and, moreover, towards his impending death. The bleak tone which O’Leary had countered earlier on with undertones of humor now dominates the text. This passage suggests how the protagonist never felt truly connected to his own family. There is a distance evoked in her writing here. O’Leary offers us a glimpse of the fleeting nature of life and pushes us to realize just how little tid (the Norwegian word for time) we have, which sets the stage for the stories to follow.
In “Michigan Would Get Beautiful,” we are introduced to Cecile Collette, who has changed her name from Pat Graves after quitting her desk job to pursue her dream. As she follows her passion for interior design while married to a man who tries to stifle her ambitions, the need to be accepted becomes of the utmost importance to Cecile. This need to belong is depicted brilliantly by O’Leary when she shows her character navigating through her wealthy client’s house during a party:
She threaded her way through the crowd to get to the kitchen. Here she began to realize the people around the Jordans were the same hodgepodge as the furniture, unmatched and plain or beautiful or young or very old. Her spirits lifted; the mix augured a place for her too.
This slightly absurd yet engaging comparison between the party attendees and the furniture reveals O’Leary’s ability to truly place us inside of her characters’ heads. We are viewing the world through the eyes of an interior designer in this story in quite a convincing way. There is something tragic in Celia’s relationship with the world as seen by her, for it is only when she imagines all of the people around her as inanimate objects can she feel any vague sense of belonging. A humiliating event unfolds later on in the night to remind Cecile that people are not furniture and she will never belong among them. Still, with unwavering optimism, Cecile continues to search for that feeling we all want to experience.
Filled with sharp dialogue, relatable characters, and the subtleties found in human interactions, O’Leary’s story collection reminds us of the ways in which we should not forget our past or try to run from it. These stories reveal to us how we should not be afraid to carry our past with us, for our pasts exist to show us where we came from while also pushing us to ask ourselves where we want to go. Even if decisions are partly controlled by fate, O’Leary shows us how some of the most important choices in life are of our own free will after all. Mainly, the decision to get up and go is completely ours to make. The question then becomes … will you go for it?
Julia Breitkreutz is a writer from South Carolina. She is currently studying to receive her BA in English from Winthrop University. Her work has appeared in X-R-A-Y and Cotton Alley Writers’ Review. Find her on Instagram @julia_breitkreutz and @juliabreitkreutz.art.