Kate McQuade’s debut short story collection, “Tell Me Who We Were,” begins with a drowning at an all-girls boarding school. Lilith, Evie, Claire and the other self-styled Seven Sisters will never forget their romance language teacher, Mr. Arcilla. “We were in love with him,” the narrator of “The Translator’s Daughter” says. What happened the night youthful Mr. Arcilla, “handsome and scruffy and achingly tall,” dove naked into the pond at the far edge of campus? Who was with him?
In their classroom after the tragedy, Lilith incants the students’ names. They “touch the places he touched” on his desk and on “the chalkboard’s ashy basin.” They believe that Lilith with her “long blond hair like a spun-sugar tangle” can summon his spirit from the dead. At night, the anguished 12-year-olds listen to the lapping of the pond and think of “the secrets underneath.” Mr. Arcilla’s final Spanish lesson compared the outward appearance, the “condition of [a] thing,” to its essence. “The layer on top, or the truth underneath.”
McQuade’s captivating stories follow the Briarfield students through life. Magical events occur along the way. In “Wedge of Swans,” objects grow from Evie’s palm when she lies to her partner about her job or about wanting a child. A birdseed, a pebble, a feather, a baby tooth, the objects reinforce what Mr. Arcilla once said about the truth beneath the surface.
In “Helen in Texarkana,” Claire imitates the cawing of crows she’s dreamed about. So as not to upset her 1-year-old daughter, she muffles the sounds with her pillow. “Meanwhile, the baby is speaking French again,” a symptom of something amiss in Claire’s home.
The magic in the Seven Sisters’ lives takes many forms. As McQuade’s characters cross real and imagined borders and canyons, they journey toward self-discovery. In her story, Evie considers happiness and loss as “two halves … of the same mass, sliding by each other in the night. And love, the canyon in between.” In Nellie’s story, “Sing Me a Song,” an older and a younger relative appear to merge on a seashore. Seeing this, Nellie realizes what her marriage and her life may become “in some unknown quantity of time.”
Allusions to Greek myth — to the Pleiades, Leda and the Swan, Helen of Troy, the phoenix — enrich McQuade’s stories; in rabbinic legend, Lilith herself is a night demon.
My one concern centers on the final piece, “In the Hollow,” where the allegory of Lilith and the tree seems a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, “Tell Me Who We Were” is such an insightful, compassionate book — a truly wonderful collection — that readers may cherish the last story as much as the first seven.
Short-story writer Anthony Bukoski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Superior, Wis.
Tell Me Who We Were
By: Kate McQuade.
Publisher: William Morrow, 193 pages, $25.99.
Event: With Lila Savage. 7 p.m. July 18, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.