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Swimming with StrangersReview - Swimming with Strangers
Stories
by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Chronicle Books , 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jan 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2)

Kirsten Lunstrum's second collection Swimming with Strangers contains eight stories linked by themes of water, age, conflict and separation. There's a definite tone to these stories. It's hard to nail down as a matter of style, voice, worldview, or something else, but it's there. Lunstrum's characters are of a type, distant, discontented, and somewhat cold. The stories have a compelling almost eerie quality. Perhaps what's unsettling is that such ordinary people are so deeply alienated. The women are the thinkers here, and experience an emotional life which, with a few exceptions is denied their male counterparts.

Several stories show middle aged individuals refracted through the lives of younger people. Youth, romance, and optimism remind the older protagonists of what they were, what they might have been, and what they have lost. Islands is a good example. Two couples are staying side by side in holiday houses at a remote seaside. The title describes the setting and the main characters: isolated pockets of sand and water in once case, feelings and memories in the other. Ellen and Loren seek to come to terms with Ellen's recent brush with cancer, but things get complicated when Loren feels attracted to Lucia, the young woman next door. Through her, Loren experiences a sense of what his wife once was, at least in his imagination. Through a series of set pieces Lunstrum draws out Loren's inner life and shows Ellen moving forward with hers. The tension in the story is understated as, despite many opportunities, Loren and Lucia never touch, but there is a strong possibility that they might. Some readers might want to up the ante in this story, for Lunstrum and her main character Loren to take more risks. Others will be satisfied with the quiet, almost wistful atmosphere, and in the unrealized potential for tension.

The second story Familial Kindness has similar qualities as Alma and her brother-in-law Charlie circle and avoid each other. Events see the circles growing tighter until there's a new connection. In the background is Lovisa: young, about to be married and ready to leave Alma to her own life. Lovisa's pending departure recaptures the loss of Alma's sister who moved away and, under Charlie's influence, lost contact. As with Islands, there is much that could happen that doesn't. Enjoyment of this story will depend whether you like to be shown possibilities, as Lunstrum does, or see them played out.

One of Lunstrum's motifs is the backward, regretful look of middle age. In Carmel, Graham persuades Sophie to accompany him to a conference. It's a long time since the couple have had a vacation, and this might be a chance to enjoy each other's company at the department's expense. But as in many of Lunstrum's stories, and as the title of the book suggests, Graham and Sophie are strangers, and when Graham, for the first time in years, sees Sophie's legs as she stands in front of a mirror, he notices the marbled veins and dimples of her flesh, and replaces this image with one from when they first met. Sophie is soon relaxing by the pool, but is also reflecting on her youth, to the extent that she buys the same lotion she used as a teenager. Graham is like many of Lunstrum's characters, who seem to have arrived suddenly in middle age with no idea of how they got there, with fresh memories of their youth and regret for its passing.

There is one story that breaks the mold, at least to some extent, and I found it the strongest in this collection. Dangerous Women sees college student Dorothy employed by her literature professor to do clerical work at his home. Being young and rather naïve, she indulges in guilty fantasies. These are mild enough, but things become interesting when Dorothy discovers that contrary to the campus gossip Professor Anton does have a wife, at least of sorts. Woven into this story is a theme of fairy tale fantasy, the subject of Dorothy's literature class. Mrs Anton is a former graduate student whose life is a form of captivity. She caters to Professor Anton's whims and seems deeply unhappy but unable to do anything about it. There's a creepy climax to this story that could give you nightmares if you thought about it too much. Dangerous Women is different to Lunstrum's other stories in that something really does happen, and it's not altogether nice. What it has in common with the rest of Swimming with Strangers is Lunstrum's almost uncanny heightened sense of hearing, smell and sight, and the intimacy of strangers: couples who share houses, breakfast tables, even beds, but not lives.

Lunstrum writes with a consistency of tone so that after a few stories there is a sense of familiarity about the characters and settings. The stories meander a little at times, and the climactic point is often more of a continuation of the plot than a dramatic high point. Lunstrum also likes to describe actions in detail, a little too much and a little too mundane at times. The natural environment features strongly throughout, and is almost a character in its own right. The other strength of Swimming with Strangers is in the unsettling characters, who seem enchanted by their often adverse circumstances. This is a collection that will leave you thinking of how things could be different, but for Lunstrum's characters probably won't be.

© 2009 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz. His latest story is published in Turbine


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