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Life Among the Terranauts

April 8, 2021

Sometimes former students send me books they’ve written and sometimes I just come across them. I came across Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks recently and read some of the stories out of curiosity. Then I read some more. And then I found I had finished reading them all.

I often read short stories and rarely review them. I consider them a momentary pleasure and if a few of them live in my memory it’s not because I’ve inscribed them in my commonplace book but because they make me see the world a little differently, like Fritz Leiber’s story “Space-Time for Springers” or George Saunder’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” Horrocks’ story “Paradise Lodge” will now be lodged in my memory beside these.

“Paradise Lodge” is the story of a tour group at a Peruvian nature reserve, Tambopata. It gets at the feelings about what’s real in the relationship between tourist and guide and shows the effect one has on the other. There’s a dark-haired young man who grew up with adoptive parents in Michigan traveling in South America before his study-abroad program starts, “staring at the faces on the street, daydreams pouring out of him. He stared too much, which made him more likely to get mugged than discover a long-lost sibling, but he couldn’t stop.” There’s a mother who, while buying the tour guide a drink, “patches together a conversation covering Saskatchewan, llamas, soccer, what candy bars are popular in different countries.” And there’s the tour guide, Victor, who finds himself seeing through the eyes of these people, the strangers who come and go.

There are other good stories in this collection; the title story, in particular, is full of odd characters who believe in things like the Gaia hypothesis and end up destroying themselves and the experiment they’ve been living in because of their stubborn faith. I liked the ordinariness of “Norwegian for Troll,” with a character who has chosen to preserve a family cabin in a landscape so remote it inspires belief in household fairies but who commutes to a job in a small town where she gives out pamphlets on diet and schedules diabetic patients for foot care when “after a few years they’d lose toes anyway, and she’d see them limping into the diner, still ordering pie after their cheeseburgers.” I liked learning the word “luoma, Finnish, verb: to give up something, but peacefully and wholeheartedly, as after a long illness or a deep suffering, and to step, however wistfully, into the next part of your life.” That seems like what we’re all doing now. And I liked a thought about what it’s like to be a parent in “Chance Me”: “It was both flattering and ugly—that Just might have invented a pretext to see him; that Just thought he needed one. It inflated Harry’s heart and cracked it all at once. Like having children, Harry thought. This was what it felt like from the moment they were born. He’d forgotten how it was, the light and the shadow. Still there, after all these years, his capacity to be destroyed.”

When you find yourself in the mood for stories about life on earth, try these.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2021 5:40 am

    I loved your tantalising hints about these stories and will do as you suggest at the end of your review! 🙂

    • April 13, 2021 11:36 am

      Glad to hear it! I’m going to think of Victor from Paradise Lodge every time I have a tour guide from now on. I hope I will be able to have a tour guide again soon.

  2. April 10, 2021 12:31 pm

    I like that cover and the stories sound appealing too. I know what you mean about George Saunders – he has a way of writing unforgettable stories! I, too, read a lot of short story collections and don’t often review them.

    • April 13, 2021 11:40 am

      Maybe it’s the way we can dip in and out and don’t often think of a collection of short stories as something we have much to say about, in total. But every now and then there’s a story that brings the whole collection into focus (and it’s not always the title story).

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