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Book Review: Separate Kingdoms by Valerie Laken

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Pushcart-Prize winning Valerie Laken has written a short story collection that explores the different territories we inhabit: geographical, cultural, intellectual, emotional, and otherwise. Set in either Russia or the United States, many of the characters of these stories are on the fringes of society, onlookers rather than participants. Others are cut off from family, friends, even themselves, through differences in circumstance or their own intentional will.

In “Spectators”  a group of men and women play golf and commiserate over their lost limbs and their refusal to sink into grief over what they are missing. While Arnie listens to their stories and laughs at all the appropriate moments, his mind lies elsewhere, with his wife, Marion. A participant in the the Sixth Annual Midwest Regional Amputee Golf Tournament, the aloof Marion is put off and disturbed by the plethora of inspirational stories and teary gratefulness of the other golfers. Her experience is a much more private affair, one that she refuses to even share with Arnie. The divide between the two strangles any hope of communication, until Arnie finds out just what Marion is hiding from him.

In “Family Planning,” a lesbian couple travels to Moscow to adopt a young boy. From the outset, Meg and Josie are at odds. Meg is wary of the legal procedures and the mounting costs, while Josie dwells in the possibility of finally being a family. Though they are expecting to see the child whose picture was mailed to them, the agency tells them an infant girl is also available. Horrified to have to make a choice and all that making that choice implies, Josie also sees a side of Meg that she’d never known existed.

In “God of Fire,” an adult woman grapples with her father’s illness and the difference between the “fierce, invincible giant” he was during her childhood and the shrunken man he is today. Between her mother’s denial of her father’s impending death, the constant traffic of bodies moving in and out of the hospital, and Ellie’s faulty memory of her own transgressions, Ellie struggles to see her father wholly, and not just through the eyes of a daughter who has always felt the critically, unwavering stare of a father she feared rather than loved.

In “Separate Kingdoms,” an industrial accident lies at the heart of the story. Colt, who has lost his thumbs, disengages from his son and wife amidst a legal battle between himself and his employer. Laken writes this story in two columns, side by side, told from the viewpoint of both the father and the son. To tune out his embittered, angry father, Jack withdraws into his room and plays the drums. Colt immerses himself in Animal Planet episodes and fixates on the things he’s unable to do now: drink a beer, pull up his zipper, and hold a utensil. After years of working the night shift, of being the primary breadwinner, he feels beaten and emasculated.

There are more stories in Laken’s collection — stories of overcoming isolation and self-inflicted exile, stories of being in the middle of a cultural revolution, stories of missing out on parts of life, stories of the human experience, all exquisitely rendered, and disquietingly lovely.

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About Jennifer O.