Sara Majka's first collection of short stories, "Cities I've Never Lived In," reads like a compendium of loss and longing, an anthology of missed opportunities and fervent hopes. The majority are tales and recollections recounted in the first-person voice of a young American woman. Some are pivotal episodes in her life; some concern the lives of others. All provide spellbinding portraits of people in a state of flux or going nowhere fast, and they show Majka as a writer attuned to the depths and complexities of human emotion.
At the beginning of the first story, "Reverón's Dolls," Majka's narrator is in the middle of a divorce with a man she still loves. After the divorce, we hear of how she picks up the pieces of her fractured life. Despite the rupture, the story remains light, poised and gentle. The woman travels, exploring other cities and herself. All heartache and unrest are repressed, but every now and then they bubble up from beneath the surface and threaten her fragile, newfound happiness. At one point she fears an imminent relapse: "I was afraid that this life I was leading — though everything was beautiful and filled with sensation — might prove too brittle, might fall apart in ways that would surprise me."
In a longer story, "Boy With Finch," she tells of growing up in Maine and how her friendship with neighbor and classmate Eli blossomed into love. In "White Heart Bar," we zigzag back to her marriage with Richard and learn that a local girl has gone missing — last seen with a friend of theirs.
The title story of the collection turns out to be one of the strongest. In it, the narrator takes us on a nationwide tour of the cities she has visited and relates her experiences helping the poor, homeless and downtrodden in churches, soup kitchens and shelters. As she listens to how lives went wrong, and to various plans and projects to get them back on track, she tries not to fret over a problem of her own, namely her lover back in New York who, during her travels, has stopped calling.
Majka has a knack of allowing cracks to slyly appear at moments when we least expect them. A man whose wife has left him puts his young daughter to bed, and, "When Leigh fell asleep, he opened the bottle of whiskey, drank. What did it matter?" Tragedies are not loudly proclaimed but offhandedly glossed. "Eli eventually moved away," she explains casually, almost as an afterthought, in the tale's crushing final paragraph.
Whether traversing mainland or islands, on terra firma or cut adrift, Majka's narrator is wonderfully sympathetic. We see her, and others, battling loneliness and existing "a while without love," without ever sinking into self-pity. With great beauty and subtlety these 14 interlinked tales speak volumes about "what happens when what makes life possible disappears."
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.