March 14: “This Is Not Your City” by Caitlin Horrocks

Happy Monday, Story366! For this short story blogger, today means a return to teaching at Missouri State, set for the second half of the semester, the last run until summer. Lots of fun to be had between now and then, though, things like AWP, a couple of great readings here on campus, and sixty Story366 posts.; I shaved this morning for the first time in ten days. Still, it’ll be nice when it’s warm and I can sleep in and watch baseball every day. And spend some time in Chicago. Hot dogs, pizza, etc.: Make peace with your gods; I’m coming for you.

First things first, I have to get back in the groove of teaching, of talking to students, of grading, of workshopping, and having a schedule, the week off making me soft. I was crazy-busy the week before break, finishing off two Moon City Press projects, the new issue of Moon City Review and Laura Ezell’s collection, A Record of Our Debts, winner of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award. My posts were going up in the late afternoon that week, but over break, I figured I’d get back to my target posting time, 9 a.m. Being busy got replaced by being lazy, though, and I never got back into a good schedule or groove. Hopefully, today is the start of a good pattern.

Starting off with a good story, too, by a good author. Caitlin Horrocks is a writer whose work I’ve read sporadically for a while now, seeing her stories in journals and in subsequent anthologies like Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart and O. Henry collections. Her book, This Is Not Your City, is a solid, eclectic collection of nine stories, out in 2011 from Sarabande. I read a couple of the stories so far, and they couldn’t have been more different, not in theme, setting, tone, voice, or scope. The first, “World Champion Cow of the Insane,” is about a couple and the year they have after college graduation, their first year together, living in a small Northern Michigan resort town. The title dragged me in, then the sweet journey the two characters take made for a worthwhile read. The second, the title “This Is Not Your City,” has such a profoundly different set of stakes, it’s almost hard to align the two as being by the same author. That’s just range, I guess, a credit to Horrocks’ talent, especially since each story is so good.

“ThIs Is Not Your City” tells the story of Daria, whose daughter is missing. We get that in the first line, thrusting us into the plot right away. Soon, we get details on the setting, on the circumstances, and find that Daria is Russian, but lives with her second husband, Paavo, in Finland. Daria and Paavo seek the help of police to find the missing Nika, a teen who went camping with her new Finnish boyfriend, Matti, and has not returned, is not returning calls.  The story may appear to be a simple missing persons case, a mystery of sorts, but there’s more. By the end of the first page, we find out that Daria doesn’t speak Finnish, and neither the police nor Paavo speak Russian. Not so easy to file a report that way, and Daria has to a wait a day for a translator before any investigation can be initiated. It’s an intriguing story with an intriguing setting, so many elements on that first page pulling me in.

One of Horrocks’ wise choices in this story is to reveal information at a controlled rate, to let the story, and its circumstances, unfold slowly. There’s the obvious mystery of what’s happened to Nika, what drives the plot, but there’s other questions. How did Darian and Paavo meet, for instance, and why are they married if they can’t speak with each other? How can Paavo go to work the next day when Nika is missing? Eventually, we find out what’s going on with this family: Daria came to Finland, and Paavo, as a mail-order bride. She was unhappy with her first husband—presumably Nika’s dad—in Russia, knew she had few prospects, so she registered with an agency, hoping to be bought (more or less) into a new, better life, for her and her daughter. Paavo is new, and from all indications, a good man, but he is much older and lives in the most remote and smallest village in Finland. Daria has ended her marriage and uprooted herself and her daughter for a life that’s not necessarily better, both of them communicating like children, using one- and two-word phrases to just get by. Daria regrets her choice, especially because it leads to Nika’s disappearance.

A key backstory scene in all this—the best scene in the story—has young Nika taking sexy pictures of her mother, lending her mother her lingerie, so she will pose a more attractive, seductive profile online. It’s creepy and sad, but pratical, and eventually, achieves what Daria wants it to.

I really liked the revelation, that Daria was purchased (more or less) by Paavo, that this is her backstory, especially not knowing it for a while. It’s an original character, shrouded in a bit of mystery, who has room to evolve. It’s a technique I don’t see that often, and Horrocks executes it to perfection.

Daria’s origin is not, however, the end of the story, or its climax. Nika’s disappearance, about two-thirds of the way through, is solved—in a way. “This Is Not Your City” then becomes another story, with another plot, another goal, another set of stakes and themes. This makes for a much more complex story than I’d thought it was, giving Daria an even greater chance to become well rounded, for us to get to know her. It’s hard to think of a story that uses such a structure, resolving one plot only to unveil a new one. Kudos to Horrocks for taking a chance, for making it work.

This Is Not Your City is a really interesting book. Considering how different the two stories that I read are, I look forward to seeing how the rest of the collection plays out. Is one of those stories an anomaly, the rest more similar to the other, or are they all completely unique from one another? Caitlin Horrocks makes me wonder about that, makes me want to read the rest of her book. And I will.