There’s something comforting about returning, years later, to a familiar story. This rereading transports you, now a different person than you were when you first encountered the story, to somewhere new but recognizable. The details you notice in this new read may not be the same details that captured you back when, but the thrill of being caught off guard all over again in a new way is unmatchable.
I first read “Little Room”, the final story in Carrie Grinstead’s debut collection I Have Her Memories Now, winner of the 2022 Howling Bird Press Fiction Book Prize, nearly five years ago, when I was assistant editor for The Masters Review. I remember—quite distinctly—the thrill of having read a terrific short story for the first time. The ending! Only a deft craftsman could have stuck this landing. Our guest judge for that year’s anthology, Rebecca Makkai, who selected “Little Room” for our anthology felt the same: “One story here, ‘Little Room,’” she wrote for our introduction, “could be its own master class in endings. I loved it all along, and had no clue where it was going, and when it ended with a lovely gut-punch from the side, it leapt straight into my ‘yes’ pile.”
But it’s a funny thing: The ending is not what stuck with me over those five years, even though (and I checked my comments on the initial submission) it was my primary focus at the time. And for good reason, as you’ll certainly agree when you pick up this terrific collection. What stuck with me, instead, was this opening, equally compelling and memorable: “In the dream, Jessie ran to the barn to rescue horses from the flames. Her mom screamed. Nothing Grandma could do but sit by the kitchen window as the roof of the riding arena collapsed, and sparks tumbled to the starry sky.” Wow! This is an opening that grabs you and stays with you for five years. And when the ending comes, your breath will catch in your throat, and you can hardly believe you made it there, but where else, you think, setting the book down, could it have gone?
Grinstead brings her remarkable talent to each story in this slim collection. There are only six stories, but every single line earns its stay. Grinstead shows again and again that she has a gift for the surprising but inevitable conclusion, and it’s no wonder Howling Bird Press selected this collection for this year’s book prize. The path of each of these stories is so particular, I can’t imagine any writer other than Grinstead having penned them.
The characters who populate Grinstead’s pages are as sure of themselves as they are flawed. Take, for instance, the narrator-protagonist of the titular story, “I Have Her Memories Now” who announces in the opening lines: “I went to grade school with Marlie O’Hagan, the world’s first recipient of a double-organ transplant. I despised her.” Or, the narrator-protagonist of “Last Body,” which begins, “They’d put Mary Helen in a gray pantsuit, a wool-blend number with a single-breasted blazer at least a size too small. I couldn’t imagine a worse choice.” Grinstead leverages their defiant, opinionated nature, and forces them to confront the fact that the world is not as black-and-white as they would like to believe.
In the book’s description, Grinstead describes her desire to compose a collection of stories that all touch on “health and medicine, death and the body.” Those elements are in here, certainly. But what stood out to me most were the frictional relationships, often formed out of necessity or by circumstance— or in some cases, even unwillingly. Here, unlikely friends, bitter rivals, and surrogate parents all grapple for the spotlight. In “I Have Her Memories Now,” the first story in the collection, the narrator’s mother wants nothing more than for her daughter to befriend the miracle child, for the news to recognize that the narrator, too, is a “miracle child.” This obsession with Marlie O’Hagan, who dislikes the narrator as much as the narrator dislikes O’Hagan, paradoxically drives her daughter to a kind of self-harm that our narrator tries to frame as productive or educational. It’s a fascinating opening to Grinstead’s world of action and transaction, reaction and retribution. In “Mrs. Fatwing,” Mala, a recently-divorced camp worker, fashions herself as a surrogate mother for an awkward young girl, Katy, who’s been targeted by a group of upper class, vicious girls. She even goes so far as to imagine setting up a college fund for Katy. But Katy doesn’t need her protection. “You don’t have to rescue her,” another camp worker says. And yet. All Mala wants is someone to save, someone to help, someone to see her in that role which she lost in her marriage. In “Every Goddamn Day,” a mother is an irregular participant in a support group for grieving family members which she frequently derides despite her surviving daughter’s regular attendance. What’s the point of it all, she asks, and Ellis, her daughter, doesn’t have an answer. But still she goes, and still she’s antagonistic until everyone’s patience runs out.
Again and again I was moved by the endings of these stories, continually surprised but never disappointed. Grinstead’s collection reminds me of Emily Fridlund’s cold landscapes in Catapult. Class plays a big role in this collection, as well; who has and who does not is often a source of friction, particularly among the young girls whose stories shoulder so much in these six stories. Grinstead asks, What is love? What is friendship, even, when we get down to the bottom of it? What good are the memories we hold onto, and where do they guide us? I Have Her Memories Now is a collection you don’t want to miss.
Publisher: Howling Bird Press
Publication Date: October 24, 2022
Reviewed by Cole Meyer