By Daphne Kalotay (TriQuarterly, Northwestern University Press)
A sense of loss pervades the short stories in this exquisite collection: the loss of memory, innocence, trust, hope and health as well as those fleeting moments of life that are deeply felt but then suddenly and silently slip forever out of one’s grasp.
In “Relativity,” for example, a young social worker, Robert, tries to make sense of the loss of his newborn daughter—born without limbs and the vital organs needed to survive—while managing the lives of his charges: frail Holocaust survivors coming to the end of long, complicated lives. Breaching professional etiquette, he shares his personal tragedy with a 99-year-old client in hospice, immediately regretting his disclosure.
“Robert watched the heavy head, the marionette limbs,” Kalotay writes. “He wondered if he would see her again, or if he would return from vacation to find another name checked off his list….”
Yet “Relativity” and companion pieces in The Archivists do not conclude with the dull thud that frequently follows a devastating loss. Kalotay’s characters muster inner strength and find ways to fill the voids in their lives.
In one of the most potent stories, “A Guide to Lesser Divinities,” Eliana, an untenured college professor of Greek mythology, becomes untethered when she is abruptly axed from her position. A half-Sephardi, half-Ashkenazi Jew who frequently identifies with the Greek gods and goddesses about whom she lectures, she experiences an “aha” moment when her boyfriend reminds her of the Hebrew meaning of her own name, “My God has answered me.” This awareness leads her on a path to a successful reinvention of the self. Soon, she bids farewell to one of her primary takeaways of Greek mythology—when “it came to fate, you were simply doomed.”
Except for a third story that focuses on the inherited trauma from the Holocaust—a subject the author also tackled in an April 2023 New York Times essay (“What Holocaust Storytellers Like Me Know About ‘Secondhand Smoke’ ”)—many of the stories do not feature main characters who are obviously Jewish or delve into their Jewishness. It matters little, because the themes into which Kalotay sensitively and intimately delves, including self-identity, trauma and escape from danger and oppression, will resonate with Jewish readers of contemporary fiction.
Robert Nagler Miller writes frequently about the arts, literature and Jewish themes from his home in Chicago.