By: Amy Gustine
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Sarabande Books (February 9, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
The heroine of the titular story had once been enrolled in a doctoral program in history, but wasn’t able to carve out a subject for herself because she couldn’t find “a beginning or an end. History just went on and on in infinite directions, a recursive, progressive web spun at a hundred trillion points of ricochet. There was no point from which to make a sensible judgement.” Every one of the stories in this collection is steeped in the sense of endlessly recursive, progressive, and ricocheting histories, but they are histories that work together to create a powerful sense of longing, regret, or, sometimes, a hard-earned moment of peace.
The first story, All the Sons of Cain, opens with a mother hiding from the protesters who are outside her house holding signs that bear her son’s picture and his (sometimes misspelled) name. She is an Israeli woman whose child has been kidnapped by Hamas. “The pain of his capture has not attenuated. Instead, it is like a cancer, swimming through her veins to plant pieces in every pocket of self: her eyes, her ears, her taste, her dreams.” The mother decides to rescue her son, and the story moves forward with frightening immediacy as she searches for him; it moves backwards as we get hints of the boy’s origin. It ricochets outward as she meets an Arab boy, gets caught up in other lives. She watches as “(T)he boy and his mother kneel and rise, kneel and rise by the light of candles, their shadows pulsating on the wall like hearts imaged with sound waves. The world has been praying for thousands of years. When, R’s mother wonders, does God plan to answer?” As with several of the stories in this collection, there may be no answer. There is, instead, the continual effort, and the hope, that allow people to find a way to care for one another.
And while time is a constant, moving presence in Gustine’s work, changing locations, particularly homes, also add a rich layer of meaning and emotion. A child from an Amazonian tribe is raised in a Midwestern suburb. The other children’s parents find their little girls lying on the ground so they can let a snake crawl over their necks at his behest. A woman living in the Depression era US grew up in Poland near the Warta river.”As a girl she liked to stand by the river when a thunderstorm was coming in, watching blue sky skitter to gray in the water’s reflection, the mirrored clouds cut in half by waves. In summer the rain felt good on the insides of her wrists, where she rolled up the sleeves of her dress.” The girl sees the river as a “mysterious transport, always on the way to something else” and imagines herself going to America, but when she lives in the United States as a much older woman she is still tied to the childhood home in Poland. Two stories center on children who have entered and left the foster care system. Another focuses on the moment three people enter Ellis Island and have their eyelids lifted with a button hook so that a doctor can inspect them for trachoma.
The stories in You Should Pity Us Instead are remarkably complex, dense with changing time, place, points of view, and subplots, all clearly and deftly described. They tackle the big subjects: death, connection, God, and they refuse to give easy answers. Instead, they leave us with the vivid sense of having lived another person’s life. This is a book well worth reading and rereading. It’s a deeply rewarding experience.