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November 16, 2013

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“You Are Not A Stranger Here”

by Anne Paddock

You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong.

Adam Haslett’s first published book, You Are Not A Stranger Here was a both a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. –  a notable achievement that few writers attain. A collection of nine short stories, You Are Not A Stranger Here was written by a master storyteller who skillfully weaves psychosis, devotion, death, clairvoyance, neglect, suicide, abandonment, and homosexuality into the lives of his characters. Cleverly written, many of the stories contain a train wreck the reader rarely sees coming which is the beauty of Haslett’s writing – the element of surprise.

632391The overriding theme in most of the short stories is mental illness in its many and varied forms. In Notes to My Biographer, a brilliant 73-year old man driven by his manic obsessions is trying to reconcile with his gay son, who hasn’t come to terms with his father’s illness. And, in The Good Doctor, the reader is introduced to Frank, a recent medical school grad who joined the National Health Services Corp to serve three years in a rural area to treat an underserved population in exchange for repayment of his student loans. On a home visit to a mother of three who is grappling with depression after losing her oldest son, Frank is faced with how to treat a different sort of patient.

In War’s End, Paul and Ellen Lewis, two thirty-something professionals are on holiday in St. Andrews. Paul suffers from depression and suicide occupies his thoughts while Ellen is intent on saving the man she loves. When Paul meets Mrs. McLaggan, an elderly women caring for her very ill grandson, he begins to realize Mrs. McLaggan sees something in him that gives his life a purpose.

Adolescence and schizophrenia collide in The Volunteer when 16-year old Ted decides to participate in a volunteer program that places students in the Plymouth Brewster Structured LIving Facility, a “place where people come to live structured lives.”  Elizabeth Maynard , a schizophrenic patient has been a 20-year resident of the facility when Ted is assigned to her, resulting in  a very special relationship.

My Father’s Business tells the story of  Daniel Markham, a 24-year old manic depressant who shares the same mental disorder of his father. Daniel has just checked himself out of a psychiatric hospital after a three-month stay and is on a train heading back home. In his lap is a manilla envelope with his psychiatric records, ready for him to read.

Homosexuality is another theme that looms through many of Haslett’s short stories. In The Beginnings of Grief,  a teenager loses his mother to suicide and then his father to a car accident leaving him an object of pity. He goes to live with two elderly women in his neighborhood so he can finish high school and not leave Gramm Slater, “an angry, cherub faced boy” with whom he has a crush on. A sad story of a teen dealing with loss and love at the same time.

In Devotion, Owen and Hillary are two middle-aged siblings living together in a small village who share a secret:  they were both in love with the same man, Ben who is now married with two children. When Ben calls to say he is coming to London for a meeting and wants to meet Owen and Hillary for dinner, old feelings start to stir.  And, in Reunion, James, a 25-year old HIV positive man struggles to come to terms with his illness, the meaning of his life and living life on his terms.

Divination stands alone in this short story collection. 11-year old Samuel is at boarding school when he discovers he knows things before anyone else does. Struggling to understand this phenomena, he turns to his parents and brother, all of whom address his fears differently. After losing an elderly professor at school, Samuel returns to his family’s home for the summer where he can spend time with his beloved 16-year old brother, Trevor on a trip to Wales.

Haskell is unlike other contemporary writers known for their short stories:. Consider Alice Munro who delves deeply into mainstream characters (particularly women) struggling to deal with marriage, children, estrangement, and career issues; and George Saunders, who tends to write about the mundane aspects of life while delivering a message about society; and lastly, John Updike whose writing about hometown life, marriage, and aging seem close to home, whereas Haskell’s short stories explore a darker side of life that is often hidden from us or by us. Mental illness and homosexuality are not often talked about or discussed even within families so when a writer brings these issues to the forefront, a reader can’t help but stand up and take notice.

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