Young ones stranded between divorced parents, children on the cusp of adolescence, strangers with ambiguous motives, adults of indeterminate age and gender—these characters reveal the uncertainty of being human in an era of disquiet. “Hardly Children” is weird, funny and pleasantly unsettling. The people flail in the gaps between each other, wordless about matters that really count. In “The Summer Father,” a divorced dad of three daughters, newly aware of his twelve-year-old’s growing breasts, can’t say “underwear”—“Don’t forget your unmentionables. I’ve washed your unmentionables.” In “Needless to Say,” a young woman attempts to communicate with her sister through messages created in strands of hair left on the shower wall. The unsaid produces a delicious tension.
Creepy in the way a Diane Arbus photographic portrait attracts yet repels, the characters in Laura Adamczyk’s debut collection demand attention, even when you feel you should look away. “Hardly Children” provokes empathy and an uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism—should I peek? How can I not? The stories skim along in cloudless suburbia, their less sunny themes subterranean. In “Danny Girl” the menace of sexual abuse exists, but is never revealed. Does anything bad happen in the crawl space next to Danny’s stepbrother’s bedroom? Has her father or stepfather, or her friend’s father, touched their daughters? Nothing is explicit, but when Danny feels sick to see a mole moving under the dirt, “grappling greedily” with tiny hands, it seems clear something has disturbed the girl’s equilibrium. “She couldn’t tell if it was worse to know what the hidden thing was or not,” could sum up this reader’s approach to turning the page.
Adamczyk’s taut observations highlight strangeness, in stories that feature a grown-up swinging in a children’s playground, random passengers on a bus, a man whose son is in a coma because he “put his trust in the wrong people’s hands.” Bars, bedrooms, caves, basements, insects, rodents and creatures of prey contribute to a sense of decay and peril—“The world is about to run off its rails. We’re all going to get knocked out of orbit…everything so goddam out of whack that it’s no longer a matter of if but when.”
By Laura Adamczyk
FSG Originals, 227 pages, $15
Laura Adamczyk appears in conversation with Daisy Johnson at 7pm on February 1 at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.