Amina Gautier’s short story collection was sent to me by fellow blogger Bill Wolfe at Read Her Like An Open Book. Although it sounds ridiculous, I accidentally won a copy when I commented on a book review blog post about this collection. Knowing I wouldn’t have time to read Gautier’s book this year, I passed it on to my talented former student, Jennifer Vosters. Jennifer previously reviewed Tides and This Time, While We’re Awake at Grab the Lapels. Please welcome Jennifer back — her review is below!
Amina Gautier’s 2016 short story collection (Elixer Press), named for the third piece in the mix, is aptly titled The Loss of All Lost Things: fifteen stories of varying lengths, all chronicle different (yet noticeably similar) experiences of loss and the “losers” who must live with it, losers familiar enough to haunt us when we look in the mirror. In The Loss of All Lost Things, one gets a sneaking suspicion that Gautier is writing not just about “everyday people” but her readers themselves, their families, their neighbors, with grim precision. And while one must admire Gautier’s unflinching insight, it’s enough to inspire some measure of discomfort, even discouragement, after a long reading session. In such a long collection rife with pain and failure and distance, the reader wears out before the writer does.
Perhaps, rather than “short stories,” a more accurate description of Gautier’s work would be “snapshots,” because the author has an uncanny ability to make readers feel that we’re given privileged access into a slice of a person’s private life: that messy, borderless thing that often comes without clear arcs or conclusions or epiphanies — making it all the more beautiful when a real one comes along. The gems of this collection are when Gautier seems to have concentrated on doing precisely that: “The Loss of All Lost Things,” “Resident Lover,” “Cicero Waiting,” and “Most Honest” stood out for their honesty, sharpness, and tautness, almost photographic and with no words wasted. These read effortlessly, as if all it took to get the words down was a click of the shutter. There was none of the heavy-handedness that slackened some of her more obvious attempts to shock or to preach (“Lost and Found” and “Disturbance” were two of these).
Gautier wins when her prose is delicate, focused, and restrained, and when her characters speak for themselves rather than for her. The pieces flounder when she tries a little too hard to get a point across, such as in her attempt at dystopia in “Disturbance,” which in addition to being heavily expository also passed glaring judgment on current events with very little subtlety.
As a whole, the collection’s primary fault is really being too long… or, rather, too unvaried for the number of stories and pages it spans. Within the fifteen thematically linked stories, Gautier returns again and again to searing losses that with repeated exposure somehow become dull. (Whether they lose their vigor because these repetitive losses are so enormous or in spite of it, I am not sure.) Failed marriages, abducted children, and empty relationships appear and reappear like characters in a continuing saga, except we do not learn new things about them with each cameo. Gautier compounds this sense of déjà vu by putting the majority of her main characters in the same career field (higher education, which also happens to be the author’s) and the same dissatisfied-to-the-point-of-depressed tone that weighs on a reader’s mind — and concentration — after a while.
Yet Gautier does something in a few of these pieces that seems increasingly rare in literary fiction: she allows for a small ray of hope. Not always, not everywhere, but in a choice few stories she opens the possibility of healing, to keep her work from delivering a damning and robotic prognosis of recovery after loss. Even better? The hope is a hint, a whisper, not enough to undermine the tragedy of the rest of the work, but just enough to cling to as an alternative to the otherwise bleak picture of damaged existence she paints over and over.
Despite the repetition, there are enough beautiful moments and interesting characters — and a tender, brutal honesty that may be Gautier’s signature — in The Loss of All Lost Things to make the collection worth reading. My advice? Read each story individually, carefully, with time to digest between. Because as a collection, The Loss of All Lost Things can drag; story by story, it stings (and you’ll like it).
Jennifer Vosters is a 2016 alumna of Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, where she studied English, Theatre, and Italian. She is currently working as an actor in Milwaukee and excitedly diving into the sizable reading list she’s compiled over the last four years.