In keeping with its minimalist content, Amy Hempel's latest collection of seven stories and a novella weighs in at a slim 155 pages; what the book lacks in heft, however, it more than makes up for in mood. Hempel, the author of two other short-story collections, is a master of witty understatement. In "The Children's Party," the narrator gives some advice to a father whose children feel that getting a new dog after the old one was killed would be disloyal: "'Tell them this: The need for the new love is
faithfulness to the old,'" to which the father replies, "'That's what I used to tell myself when I cheated on my ex-wife.'" In Hempel's stories, nothing much happens, yet everything changes.
The collection's title is taken from the novella, in which a woman committed to a psychiatric institution writes a letter to a famous painter she has only met once. The letter is written over the course of several days, and as the writer chronicles her life among the other patients, she reveals her wounded psyche and her struggle to find home, "the place where nothing can touch you." In one way or another, all of Hempel's characters are looking for home, but there is nothing epic in their voyages of discovery; rather, it is in the little things--the touch of an unshaven cheek, a school of bluefish leaping in the surf, a baby's grave--that Hempel captures a whole world of feeling.
This collection of stories explores characters who define themselves primarily through loss, especially loss revolving around "home." The narrator in "The New Lodger" returns to a familiar town but forgoes reunions and instead writes her friends postcards, to make her feel the "pull of the old home, pulling apart the new." In "The Annex," a new home owner establishes her sense of place in relation to a premature baby's gravesite, across the street, and to its still grieving mother. This and other stories, most only a few pages, are warm-ups for the novella, conceived as a letter by a young woman recovering in a rehabilitation facility, written to an artist she's seen once, briefly. The narrator struggles to define herself in relation to her mother, who has taken her own life, and the letter serves as narrative therapy, tracing the parallel challenges of self-understanding and narrative coherence--"No right place to begin" --and the relief of humor and wordplay--"Art has drawing power" --as well as the subtle perceptual shifts that can mark character transformation. Through these last Hemple deftly angles us into her character's world. Jim O'Laughlin