So, after a brief stop last week, normal service is resumed and I have a book to review. This is one that has sat on my shelf for a while. I bought it a year or two ago when I decided to try out more short story collections. I figured it might make me a better or, at least, quicker reader. As expected, it did neither of those things and I just shoved it away with my other unread books. But I’m trying really hard to get through my unread books this year so I randomly plucked this off the shelf a few weeks ago. I can’t remember what prompted it but it was probably because I, naively, believed it would be a quick read. And February hasn’t exactly been a stellar reading month for me. I’ve still got two books on the go and this marks my second finished read. I’ve been doing so well so far that this is a genuine crushing blow. Still, let’s not start this review on a downer. Especially as I started this book with high hopes. A short story collection connected by a common theme and character? It sounded wonderful.
There’s a line in one of the short stories in Sara Majka’s collection that, I think, really sums up this whole book. “To her we must be God, I thought, though I wasn’t sure what I meant.” You get the sense that Sara Majka was writing things that she thought sounded beautiful without ever having a clue what she was saying. There is some absolutely beautiful writing within these short stories but, if I’m honest, I felt that a lot of the content was shallow and meaningless. I started off really liking these stories but, as they went on, it kind of started to feel more like white noise. It was just happening around me without me really taking much notice. If I’m honest, I spent the last few stories just desperately wanting it to be over but still hoping that she would surprise me with a final masterpiece.
At first glance, Cities I’ve Never Lived In seems as thought it’s going to be a simple collection of stories about arty hipsters living in Wintry landscapes and trying to get to grips with humanity and love. There is a lot of this analysis throughout the stories but it does get more complicated as the stories go on. Majka starts to blend together reality and fantasy. The stories are linked by the story of a newly divorced woman who is trying to find herself without her husband. She travels the country to see how other people live and starts telling stories along the way. Telling the stories of her family, the people she has met, and the people she imagines. The collection is an exploration of humanity and that sense of belonging. It is the journey of a woman trying to find out where she belongs by exploring the places other people live.
All of the stories within this collection are sad. The narrator is dealing with a great loneliness and a massive longing for a family. She deals a lot in departures and we see many people disappearing from their homes. There is the father who abandons his daughter, the child who is kidnapped from day care, the mother who loses her daughter, and the man who can’t find his home after leaving a mental hospital. This is about what happens when somebody leaves the place they belong and the consequences it has on everyone. They are all linked by an intense sadness which is how the narrator can come to empathise with them. Why she uses them as an excuse to flit from place to place in the hope that she will find out who she is and what she is looking for. Creating new realities wherever she goes in the hope that it will replace the reality she once knew with her husband.
I absolutely get what the stories in this book are trying to do. It draws on aspects of so many different genres and creates contrasting atmospheres throughout to show all facets of reality. It never shies away from showing the gritty reality of life and the human condition. However, I still can’t escape the fact that I didn’t really enjoy it. It seemed very arty (for lack of a better word) in its approach to these tasks. It all felt very superficial. It’s a series of stories that believes they are more profound and deep than they are. It kind of feels like a bunch of pretty words put together before any real meaning could be attached to them so it had to be stuck on later. I didn’t get a real sense of anybody in this book or any real purpose. There are some good stories here but, if I’m brutally honest, the majority of them are forgettable. So much so, that I have already lost track of what I’ve just read.