Gina Ochsner’s second volume of stories is called The People I Wanted to Be, a phrase found mid-way in the third story, “How One Carries Another,” in which the narrator, a grown man, reminisces about his old paper route, walking in the rain and wind and seeing haloes of light in kitchens and on front walks of houses: “I’d watch people moving from one square of light to another, and I’d imagine the happy and full lives of those people I wanted to be.”
Such a description prepares us for characters who are the complete opposite, caught in difficult circumstances and struggling for happiness, because though full happy lives are the ideal, in fiction as in life, rare is the example. The description is also a subtle and masterly touch; it gives the entire volume a title that is not the title of any one story. Finding the thematic core of a book of stories titled by a phrase or image in the text is part of the pleasure of reading.
In these eleven stories, set in Eastern Europe and in Oregon, the characters are a wide mix: a quarreling married couple who buy a mynah bird to spark up their love life; a dying nun who resents the young, alcoholic Catholic woman with no teaching experience who replaces her at her school; lonely forensic lab technicians; twin sisters helping in their parents’ mortuary business; lovelorn graphic artists; a post-Soviet family who spends most of their time fishing; a young married couple who speak different languages, despairing over their inability to conceive, settling for “ghost children.”
The appealing beauty of this book is the weaving of the stories’ plots with the complexity of the characters, made richly poetic with stark, fresh, imaginative language. A dying woman’s heart is described as “folding up like a Chinese lantern.” Truth is called “a dark stain, and the words of any language. . . like leaves: one more way to hide ourselves from one another.” Coastal light is “sharp enough to force a grimace but never warm enough to cause a sweat.” The stories move swiftly from scene to scene, but the descriptions are so vivid and the motives for characters’ action so believable that there are no gaps as there are in the lives of these people, a feat difficult to achieve but necessary for memorable storytelling.
Also varied is the point of view the author chooses for narration. Some of the stories are told by women, some omnisciently, but more by men. Why shouldn’t women writers take on a male persona? More power to them in enlivening the sex scenes, giving full range to the human voice, and all the more claim for work that deserves rereading.
Gina Ochsner, author of the novel The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her first volume of stories, The Necessary Grace to Fall, which also won an Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Corban University.
There is more to come! Gina will be at Powell’s on Burnside Wednesday July 27th for a book launch of her latest: The Hidden Letters of Velta B.