Chris Power’s debut story collection, “Mothers,” has a range of settings — England, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Greece and France, among others — but similar concerns befall his characters, wherever they are.
Eva, featured in three of the stories — “Summer 1976”; “Innsbruck”; and “Eva” — keeps a map in her childhood bedroom marked with the places she wishes to go, but in adulthood, her aimless roaming leaves her unsatisfied.
The narrator of “The Colossus of Rhodes” takes his family to Greece in pursuit of sunshine and finds himself haunted by memories of a boyhood trip. Several couples begin a journey in the country together but soon part ways. In “Run,” David and Gunilla rent an allegedly haunted farmhouse, wander in a graveyard and separate on a running trail. In “The Crossing,” Ann and Jim grow increasingly distant on a hike that ends with a sudden, fatal mistake.
“The Crossing” stands out in this collection. Power masterfully builds the tension between Ann and Jim, as minor miscalculations and inconveniences — a broken heater, an imperfect map, a mild-mannered joke — become ever more dangerous. These stories are intrigued by danger, real and imagined, particularly in the context of celebrations, jaunts and holidays.
In “Johnny Kingdom,” Andy, a comic who struggles to write his own material, succeeds only when he impersonates a late comedian. He performs at a sinister bachelor party that leaves him bloodied and undressed “in the middle of the spotlit road.”
These latter two stories are Power’s strongest and flirt with the gothic.
“Above the Wedding” and “Portals” are both tied to wedding ceremonies. In the former — the more urgent and stronger of the two — Liam develops an obsession with the groom.
The prose, often expository and straightforward, is elevated by striking use of metaphor and simile. Eva watches her mother “clapping her hands together as if she was knocking flour from them”; records look like “rounds of liquorice”; summer air is “thick as jam” and rain “sound[s] like sizzling fat.” At the bachelor party, “Andy can see powder at the edge of their nostrils, frost ringing a chain of black ponds.” Approaching a river on a hike, Ann sees “an uneven path of stepping stones. … They stood from its surface like the vertebrae of a giant animal.” Eva, cutting an artichoke heart in Spain, watches “its layers parting like the pages of a book.”
Power opens and closes with Eva — an “old, sick woman” by the time her estranged husband visits her in a hospital. In this final story, Power discloses that Eva is, in fact, the author of “Summer 1976.” Although she has no formal connection to the characters in most of the other stories, they share her preoccupations, her restlessness and her fears.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Lenny Letter, Narrative, Glimmer Train, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Chris Power.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 286 pages, $26.