This month I’ve had the pleasure to read Bystanders, a compelling collection of short stories by writer, columnist, and editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, Tara Laskowski.
Bystanders is an apt title. A bystander, by definition, is a person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part. This is the theme running through the stories in this collection, whether it be a woman who becomes obsessively sympathetic to the driver involved in a hit-and-run; a new mother whose baby monitor shows her a chilling truth; a house-hunting couple whose relationship has recently been tested by an affair; or an investigative reporter whose alias likes to ‘ruin other people’s careers.’
Yet the bystander is still, inevitably, changed by these events and incidents.
So, too, is the reader. For Tara Laskowski introduces us to a cast of seemingly ordinary characters, and exposes their secrets, fears and desires. The thirteen stories in this collection will draw you in – deceptively soothing, seductive even – and then spit you out the other side.
In the opening story, ‘The Witness’, the bystander is a woman who witnesses a hit-and-run. But it is the man behind the wheel that she becomes interested in, to the point of obsession: ‘she was thinking how quickly it happened; how in one second you could change someone’s life forever’. The event serves as a catalyst for the woman, who, no longer satisfied to be a bystander in her own life, begins to question her own family and relationships – ‘it was funny how her house, which minutes before had seemed quiet and safe, now seemed like a prison’ – until the story draws to its inevitable, and satisfying, conclusion.
There are uncomfortable truths in these stories that we can all relate to. In ‘The Monitor’, ‘Myra hated every single one of her friends who told her how blissful motherhood was’ and ‘Eileen/Ally was a jogger, jogging right up to the end of her pregnancy, which pissed Myra off.’ In this story, crossed signals between baby monitors leads to both jealousy, and then terror, in a pair of new mothers. The blurred lines between imagination and reality are both chilling and unsettling, and lead the reader wondering where the truth lies.
In ‘The Oregon Trail’, Laskowski skilfully weaves past and present together, the setting mirroring the fears and desires of the characters: ‘Suddenly you realise how inconsequential you and your vintage washed jeans are to the earth… it couldn’t care less what you want, what you desire, where you came from, and where you’re going.’
Often, as in ‘There’s Someone Behind You’, the story gradually unravels, and then ends just when it should, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. And how dark, how chilling, those gaps are.
The prose is deceptively readable, but how it lingers. A thought is ‘like biting into chalk’; goldfish ‘swirl around… like shiny coins’; and a baby feels ‘like a space heater in my arms.’
It cannot be an accident that there are thirteen stories in this collection, given the dark subject matter. Yet there is hope here too.
In ‘Other People’s Houses’, an estranged couple, unable to change their past, find a new way to move forward, to ‘see everything that is ahead of them and all that is behind them’. In the concluding story, the ominously titled ‘Death Wish’, a woman obsessed by her co-worker’s murder propels herself out of her own unsatisfying life: ‘Racing back to the apartment, coat billowing behind her, Sandra wondered, briefly, elatedly, how she must look, and hoped someone was watching her.’ Like a glass of iced tea, it is a refreshing conclusion to this dark collection of tales.
Laskowski’s suburban truths will unsettle you, ferret out your darkest fears, challenge what you think you know about yourself, and will – ultimately – leave you changed.
This is the true power of Laskowski’s writing. She’ll leave a stain on your soul. And you’ll thank her for it.