In a collection of short stories shuffling between many narrators, places and time periods, Midge Raymond’s Forgetting English offers readers vignettes with a common theme: every story involves a stranger in a strange land. Some are suffering identity crises. Others are smarting from relationships gone awry, or preparing for a painful divorce. Some stumble into illicit love affairs while other search desperately for a connection in a frozen wasteland. Regardless of where they start out, how we leave each character is the genius of Raymond’s writing.
Despite having encountered some great ones, I’m still skeptical of short story collections. Masters like Jhumpa Lahiri have created pure magic in Interpreter of Maladies, for example, but I still find myself shying away from the format. But Raymond is making headway on getting me to admit I’m a fan after all.
With ten short stories in her slim but powerful collection, Raymond introduces us to characters who are shaky and broken. I’m not going to mince words here: most of these shorts feature unhappy people searching for something or someone, and none are cheery. But somehow, despite the somber tone, I didn’t feel depressed while reading . . . and as time went on, I came to appreciate the insights into human nature that Raymond offered in spades.
Each story is an exploration of love and loss and longing, and my favorites in the work are the earliest ones: “First Sunday,” “Translation Memory” and “The Ecstatic Cry.” The latter is told from the perspective of a female researcher working with penguins in their natural Antarctic habitat, and her search for a connection — physical; emotional — really resonated with me. No story is more than 15 or 20 pages, but you immediately feel dropped into a scene and tied to the people offering you their moment.
One of Raymond’s talents is the seamless way in which she fluctuates between speakers. Some stories are told in first person, while others shift to third. I’m partial to “I” narratives as a general rule, but the third-person perspective never bothered me. Raymond’s controlled, lovely language drew me in. In “First Sunday,” two estranged sisters are bonded in an unexpected way — and that story is the one I’ve been thinking of most often.
“As I pass by the window, I hear faint noise outside, like voices. Straining to see, I eventually make out two shapes, heads together, walking slowly toward a corner of the yard. I recognize [them], but then they fold themselves into a blanket, their bodies one, and disappear into the shadows. . . . From my place inside the house, with [them] hidden somewhere among the trees outside, I sense that my sister and I are finally aligned, in a constellation we can accept if not comprehend, just beyond one another’s vision, yet just within reach.”
While each individual story seemed like it could spread on for pages, their brevity is what makes Forgetting English powerful. If you’re nervous about trying short stories after a long stint away, Raymond’s work might be a solid reintroduction. With descriptive, interesting prose and unique narratives, her collection — winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction — is thought-provoking and memorable.
4 out of 5!