Review: A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin (2020)

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin

Blurb:

From farm to factory, alcoholism to war wounds, friendship to betrayal, the stories in A Place Remote take us intimately into the hearts of people from all walks of life in a rural Ohio town. Whether they stay in their town or leave for distant places, these characters come to realize no one is immune to the fictions people tell others—and themselves—to survive.

In each of these ten stories, Gwen Goodkin forces her characters to face the dramatic events of life head-on—some events happen in a moment, while others are the fallout of years or decades of turning away. A boy is confronted by the cost of the family farm, an optometrist careens toward an explosive mental disaster, a mourning teen protects his sister, lifelong friends have an emotional confrontation over an heirloom, and a high school student travels to Germany to find his voice and, finally, a moment of long-awaited redemption.

Review:

I am so grateful to Lori @TNBBC for providing me with a copy of A Place Remote in exchange for an honest review. Book bloggers, if you aren’t following TNBBC already on Twitter, you really should: the selection of books she promotes is so tantalising that I wish I had time to read and review them all! I chose this ARC because I am fascinated by Amercian small town stories – last year I read a whole spate of them, and I loved the feeling of being totally immersed in a specific location. A Place Remote centres on an Ohio town, but it spirals out and back again in an incredibly clever way. It reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (for obvious reasons) and of ‘small town’ books by Kent Haruf and David Joy. The writing style put me in mind of Lauren Groff, whose works I also discovered and devoured last year. In short, Gwen Goodkin is exactly my type of writer, and this book has me on tenterhooks for what she is going to produce next.

The stories in this collection vary in length and tone, but they sit harmoniously with each other, adding up to a cohesive whole which is extremely satisfying for the reader. The opening story, ‘Winnie,’ is a powerful example of the novel-like scope that the short story form can have, encompassing years of the characters’ lives with elegant economy. Similarly, in ‘How To Hold It All In,’ Marv’s experiences of war, love, marriage and friendship are (excuse the pun) all held within the short form with delicacy and skill. The trio of stories about Dawn, Jimmy and their mother are a heart-wrenching suite of tales, revealing Goodkin’s interest in perspectives, in gently turning over the dynamics of groups of characters.

This interest is much more explicitly dealt with in perhaps my favourite story of the collection, ‘Just Les Is Fine,’ in which a disillusioned optometrist becomes engaged in a hostile confrontation with the writer herself. I love the playful nature of this story, and how cleverly Goodkin steers the emotional drive of the narrative so that it teeters on the edge of farce but maintains enough dramatic thrust that it never descends into it. I don’t think there are many writers who could have pulled it off: I am in awe of Goodkin’s talent.

Other stories that will stay with me include ‘The Widow Complex’ (not one for arachnophobes!) and the final story, ‘A Month of Summer,’ which I think is the longest piece in the collection, and which thoroughly justifies its length by the level of nuance and emotional resonance that it contains in its story of ‘Yulli’s’ experiences in Germany as an exchange student, and his complicated relationship with home.

Home is, of course, a recurring theme in these stories: the desire to escape coupled with the seeming inevitability of return creates a tugging feeling that is echoed in the struggle between familial expectation and personal desire, as well as the power tussles between men and women, which are beautifully articulated in ‘As I Lay Living.’

I am really excited to have had the chance to discover a writer as skilled and subtle as Gwen Goodkin, and I firmly believe there will be extremely exciting things to come from her in the future. This is a startlingly good debut collection, and one that I whole-heartedly recommend.

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin is published by WVU Press and is out now.

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