Jessica Francis Kane drew considerable attention for her artful historic novel, The Report, which explored the repercussions of a tragic incident in March 1943, when 173 people died while rushing into the Bethnal Green tube station for shelter during an air raid. Her portraits of wartime Londoners were psychologically acute and rich in evocative detail. She applies that same skill to her second collection, This Close, populated by 21st century Americans adrift in an increasingly complicated world. This is an idiosyncratic collection, with a mix of stand-alone and linked stories. What is striking is Kane's gift for exploring the anxieties and preoccupations of her characters with such empathy that you wonder, even worry about them as you might worry about a troubled real-life friend.
Take Holly, the narrator of "The Essentials of Acceleration," a dutiful daughter who, at 41, yearns for connection but can summon little warmth toward her neighbors, or her 91-year-old father. Midway through the story she asks, "Tell me, when do you work into a conversation that your mother died in a car crash? Somewhere between bringing over the first pie or the first housewarming gift and the ninth or 10th Christmas without so much as an invitation for a holiday drink?" Yes, Holly is standoffish for a reason (her mother's early death, caused when her father dodged a deer and hit a tree). But her wound has developed a protective scab, and she is growing pricklier by the year. By the time we meet her, Holly is involved in her own vehicular mishaps, and has a growing envy of her outgoing younger neighbor Janeen, a wife and mother who seems closer to Holly's father than she is.
Holly's neighbor Pat, in "American Lawn," also finds Janeen irksome. Pat sees a handwritten sign at the library: "Wanted: A plot of land for gardening in exchange for vegetables." She agrees to help a Croatian immigrant, thinking the arrangement might solve the problem she is having with Janeen and her husband, "new nouveau riche" transplants who have renovated their house and hired a landscape architect. Pat and Janeen compete for Kirill's attention, but neither of them seems to know how to respond to the scars he bears from his traumatic past. Kane uses subtle irony to explore ways in which Kirill seems more resilient than the clearly more privileged Pat.
The women in This Close are worn down, overwhelmed by love and loss and the kaleidoscope of changes that now constitutes ordinary life — like Maryanne Leary, who stars in a four-story set. Kane gives us a heartbreaking progression of tragic proportions with Maryanne, who appears first as a distracted, newly divorced mother staging a garage sale with her adoring 5-year-old son (in "First Sale"). "She starts down the stairs and he steps quickly after, reaching for her hand, as he often does, to remind her of him," Kane writes.
In the flash fiction "Lesson," Kane gives us a glimpse of Maryanne showing her now teenage son to drive. In the longer story "Double Take," we learn her son has died while swimming off Fire Island. In a staggering moment, Maryanne smashes a kettle into a stove burner, unleashing her feelings about a friend of her son who has come to visit her a year after the funeral: " 'You can't come here now. You can't make this your story again,' she said loudly." And in a final one-pager ("Night Class"), Maryanne is working as a copy-editing teacher: "She liked the chance to revise and perfect. It didn't feel like real life at all."
Elizabeth, who appears in the last three stories, has more mysterious troubles. She takes to her bed while her husband, John, and daughter Hannah travel to Jerusalem ("The Stand-in"), on a weekend with John at their longtime beach house ("The Old Beginning"), even while Hannah throws him a surprise birthday party with university colleagues ("Local Birds"). Elizabeth is depressed in ways that are hard to understand. "Sleep swamped her; mornings were miserable. Each new day required all the thoughts that disturbed her, the unhappy past and the uncertain future, to be rolled away once more."
But Kane shows such tenderness toward these spiky, exhausted, forlorn, uncertain people that she allows us to sympathize with their all-too-human flaws. We know these people. They are our family, our friends and neighbors. They are us, at our most vulnerable.