The Loss of All Lost Things
By Amina Gautier
Reviewed by John David Harding
Many things are lost in a lifetime. Children. Lovers. Jobs. Dreams. Memories. Innocence. Time. It is even said that life itself is "lost," as if life were missing rather than over. Amina Gautier's The Loss of All Lost Things brings together fifteen stories that focus our attention on the fragility and transience of life's most precious things. Though at first glance this premise might seem depressing, this collection offers a satisfyingly rich meditation on life's insuperable counterpart, loss.
In the eponymous story, two parents struggle to come to terms with their young son's disappearance. They are doing everything they can to focus on finding him, but they constantly encounter reminders of how they have failed to protect him. Even the language they use while searching for him is tremendously painful:
It's not as if he has been misplaced. It's nothing like losing one's keys. It's not as simple as retracing one's steps. He has not been lost, but the proper word is too dirty a word that makes it all too real, makes them dread instead of hope. Whose fault is it? He was on no one's watch. Less than a block between the school bus drop-off point and home, grabbed somewhere in between.
Similarly, "Cicero Waiting" explores the loss of a child from the perspective of a couple whose marriage is crumbling under the weight of the husband's shame. Because their daughter is kidnapped while she's under his supervision, he blames himself for their loss. Like the parents in "The Loss of All Lost Things," they try to make sense of the finality of their loss, but the father's overwhelming guilt threatens to destroy what's left of their marriage. As if losing their daughter wasn't enough, the sudden nature of his separation from his child yields additional force to their grief:
It pained him to think of how easy it had been to lose his daughter. One minute, she was near him, playing among a nearby rack of clothing, her head dwarfed by two-pieces on hangers, her feet visible. The next minute she wasn't there. He turned around to drop the economy-sized liquid detergent into his cart and she was gone.
For other characters in Gautier's collection, their losses are anticipated but no less harrowing. Judy in "As I Wander" and Leslie in "Been Meaning to Say" have each lost a spouse and are beginning to reorient themselves to life on their own. While Judy and Leslie grieve in very complex ways, what they want is essentially simple. They both want somebody to love, and for that person to never leave. What they ask of life and what they receive, however, are two entirely different things.
Other characters experience understated yet profound loss in situations where they are forced to see loved ones in a new light. Most notable is Vivian's loss in "What Matters Most," a story detailing her whirlwind love affair with her much-younger dance instructor, Tavares. As their lessons progress, Vivian begins to believe that Tavares will guide her into a new phase of life. But when she invites him into her home for the first time, he awakens something unexpected within Vivian's fifteen-year-old daughter, Brooke. Vivian thus realizes that her relationships with Brooke and Tavares will never be the same, and these losses brutally collide with her dashed hopes for the future.
Of course, no relationship comes without the risk of divorce, permanent separation, or rejection. Nowhere is the latter outcome more evident than in "What's Best for You," the story of a good-natured Interlibrary Loan specialist named Bernice. Like Vivian, Bernice is a single mother whose love life has taken a backseat to work and rearing her daughter. One day at work, Bernice meets Harold, whom she initially despises but comes to view as dating material. In a revealing moment, she fantasizes about a copy room tryst with him: "She will wait until all of her work-study students are gone and she is the only one in the office. Wait until he is at the copier again. Step behind him, flick her tongue at the whorl of his ear." But when Bernice finally works up the nerve to accept Harold's earlier request for a date, she is met with rejection's sharp sting.
While many of Gautier's stories are formally traditional, they tend to defy categorization. In this regard, she is at the height of powers in "A Cup of Time," a heart-wrenching story about life's difficult choices. Sona and her husband, Cary, are expecting twin boys, but complications with the pregnancy leave the couple with an impossible decision to make. To stave off the impending loss, Cary goes through the motions of securing their house by locking the front door, setting the burglar alarm, and turning off the lights to conserve power. Doing so "give[s] him a semblance of normalcy, allowing him to pretend that tonight is an ordinary night and [they] are an ordinary couple having ordinary babies." What begins as a conventional story concludes with a closing line that resonates with extraordinary power.
As a reader, I lost myself in the depth and brilliance of Gautier's storytelling. Her characters experience terrible loss and even greater despair, but the reader's takeaway is not pessimistic. Instead it's a reminder that we must never take for granted the people in our lives. Gautier teaches us to be careful with one other, because some lost things can never be found again.