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10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Falling KnifeA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! Cross CurrentsDante's PoisonDante's WoodDarkest FearDating Without NovocaineDead BoysDead Canaries Don't SingDead EndDead EvenDeadly AdviceDeadly ButterflyDeadly GambleDeaf SentenceDear American AirlinesDear Zoe,Death of a Department ChairDeath of an AddictDeath with InterruptionsDeath Without TenureDeceitDecemberDeceptionDefending JacobDeliverance From EvilDemonologyDepraved HeartDisobedienceDisturbing GroundDivine JusticeDivisaderoDixie RoadDr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeDriftlessDuplicityEcstasyEmerald City BluesEmpire FallsEmpress of the WorldEnd over EndEven DeadlierEven Dogs in the WildEvenings at FiveEvery Visible ThingEye ContactFaking ItFalling ManFamily HistoryFascinationFat Angie Fear of the DarkFeeling Sorry for CeliaFellsideFeminist Philosophy And Science FictionFever 1793Field of BloodFinal JeopardyFlashpointFlorid StatesForgive the MoonFortunate SonFortune's RocksFour Blind MiceFour CornersFred the ClownFrom Girls to GrrlzGallatin CanyonGaudi AfternoonGenerosityGeorgia Under WaterGhost at the WindowGiftedGiganticGirl in TranslationGirl Walking BackwardsGirls Closed InGirls Like UsGod HeadGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoldengroveGone GirlGood GriefGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the BeautifulGuises of DesireHalf In Love With DeathHappiness Sold SeparatelyHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHappy Now?HarleyHarry Potter and the Sorcererís StoneHeartbeatHeftHell's IslandHey, Wait...High HeatHolidays On IceHope in a JarHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHouse of JavaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow People ChangeHow to Be GoodHow to Set a Fire and WhyHug MeI Can See YouI Don't Know How She Does ItI'd Know You AnywhereIf I Fall, If I DieIf You StayImagine Me GoneImposter for HireIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestIngloriousInnocentInnocent WorldInnocentsInspired SleepInvisibleIronshoreIs This What Other Women Feel Too?It Takes OneIt's Love We Don't UnderstandIt's Not Me, It's YouJacob Have I LovedJimmy CorriganJohn Dies at the 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CrossMiddlesexMischlingMisfortuneMissing PresumedMoby DickMomma and the Meaning of LifeMonsterMonths and SeasonsMr. CommitmentMrs. DallowayMunich AirportMurder BookMurder in ByzantiumMurder in the InnMusic for TorchingMy AbandonmentMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy Life with CorpsesMy Name Is RedMy Sister's KeeperMystery Time StoriesNasty, Short and BrutalNecessary NoiseNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNeuroticaNever Fade AwayNever Let Me GoNew Australian StoriesNight FilmNina: AdolescenceNo One Can Pronounce My NameNo Place to HideNone of the AboveNorth of BeautifulNothing RightNovel About My WifeObjects of My AffectionObservatory MansionsOdd HoursOddsOld SchoolOn Chesil BeachOn the CouchOnce You Go BackOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOne Good TurnOne More WednesdayOne Pill Makes You SmallerOptic Nerve #11Our Souls at NightOver Tumbled GravesPaint It BlackPanicParadiseParadise LodgeParanoiaParty GirlPeculiaPerfect LivesPharmakonPhobicPianoPictures of 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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: firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest story is published in Turbine