“How We Disappear” by Tara Lynn Masih

Tara Lynn Masih’s exceptional short story and novella collection How We Disappear (Press 53, 2022) presents a sprawling range of characters, unique voices, and exotic settings.

Take the first story, “What You Can’t See in the Picture.” The protagonist is a woman with a most unusual career, stemming from her super power: she can recognize and recall faces in great detail. This fascinating trait comes in useful in her work with law enforcement. She can pick perp’s faces out in a crowd, online, or on video footage. The details she recalls are most unusual. For example, her super recognition allows her to nail Gary the Perp because the “tops of his ears spread like thin-veiled bat wings, and his lobes hung heavy like ripe fruit.” And that’s just one of her achievements.

Touches of magical realism enliven the story “Salt.” The narrator’s friend sets out to meet up with an old boyfriend, but ends up with an entirely different, enchanting outcome. Masih uses a distant narrator, one removed from the events, so it is not quite possible to separate the fantasy from reality. Are we meant to scoff at the absurdities described—or giggle over them—or embrace the possibilities? Is the narrator’s take away from her friend’s adventure serious or ironic: “Anything is possible, and nothing should be passed by, ever again.”

Other stories also offer unusual narrators. Brandy, the caretaker of a Western ghost town, whose solitary companion is a twenty-two-year-old ghost. Agatha Christie, the famous author’s life told in snippets, especially one about her eleven-day disappearance. Grigori, lost in a white-out in Siberia while hunting sable. Elizabeth, a New Yorker, convinced she wants a big change of scenery—a life in the desert. Though the settings are varied, the characters share being lost or adrift in some way—until they forge connection with another human.

One especially appealing story is “Delight.” The title character learns to create sugary confections from her grandmother, who warns no man will want to marry a girl with such an odd appearance. Delight, the grandmother says, needs to learn how to support herself. Since birth, Delight has leaned sideways—can’t quite straighten up. In the candy store where she is the source of all the sweet treats, customers avoid looking at her. Instead, they “gravitate to the one who is safe to look at,” her pretty cousin Mercedes. Until one man does look at Delight. Besides the sweet romance in this story, the descriptions of candy making are truly mouth-watering and Delight-full, pun intended.

Another stand-out, “Birdman” takes place in Europe. The grown narrator, Amy, has come to find her father’s grave in Europe. His plane was shot down long ago, in World War II, but the narrator’s mother never told her young children the father had perished. Instead, the mother wanders through life pretending he might be overhead in any plane passing by. While in Europe, Amy meets Coletta, an elderly woman who has been tending his grave all this time. His plane crashed in a field near her home. Coletta’s description of what happened is poetic and lovely: “My neighbor came and told me of a man who had dropped from the sky. . . I prayed that he saw the stars as he fell.” The connection between American Amy and the European caretaker is a beautiful recognition of human compassion spanning national boundaries, as well as the boundaries of time. Amy grows through her experiences: “Personal problems seem much smaller when juxtaposed against the evidence of a long stretch of human history and suffering.” America is so young compared to Europe, she realizes.

The poignant novella, “An Aura Surrounds That Night,” is presented in snippets of Mercy’s memories of growing up on a farm. She has a particularly close relationship with her younger sister Melody. The siblings, only a year apart in age, share an attic bedroom and outdoor adventures on their farm. As Mercy grows older, she becomes aware she has an unusual gift to see the future, especially when something bad is going to happen. Which, of course, it does. The ending provides surprising twists, as well as intriguing, mysterious connections to President Kennedy and his family.

How We Disappear showcases the considerable talents of Masih, particularly in creating characters that manage to feel unique and yet familiar at the same time, and settings so full of sensory details they become characters in themselves. This fine collection is a worthy addition to any bookshelf.

Tara Lynn Masih is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and winner of a Julia Ward Howe Award, a Florida Book Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and multiple Foreword Book of the Year Awards. She is the author of My Real Name Is Hanna and editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Masih founded The Best Small Fictions series and received a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.



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