Kelsey Norris’ debut story collection, House Gone Quiet, chronicles characters at a turning point between upheaval and the path of reconciliation. Each of these 10 narratives ends on a note that suggests this isn’t the end of the story.
These tales are told from a place of aftermath. “The Sound of Women Waiting” is set in an unnamed nation that has won a war against the titular women’s native land. The protagonist, Satya, explains, “Our country trucked loads of us across the border — as peace offerings, as wives — and what could we do but go?” The opening paragraph describes one transplanted woman announcing, in the courtyard of the women’s shared compound, her plan to kill her husband. The others, Satya included, attempt to dissuade her despite the brutishness and brutality of all of their husbands. “They wanted us to stay home, to live half-lives in a country we could not navigate without them. What kind of man takes his wife prisoner? The husbands kept us from happiness.”
Satya is a fitting name; it is a Sanskrit word meaning truthfulness. Over the course of the narrative, Satya turns hard away from complacency. “If we do not kill our husbands,” she asks herself, “are we choosing them?” The only thing that helps her sleep is whispering “the words dead and home.”
The story “Stitch” describes a handful of American hobbyist runners, each of whom, while jogging, has happened across the corpse of a murder victim. Having agreed to be part of a news segment, they gather to answer a reporter’s questions. “The group bristles at the word guilt. Collectively, they bristle. It’s an imprecise word for what they feel, for what they feel they’re working through. Guilt seems to imply some sort of fault which is not theirs. It implies a level of participation in the event that they’re uncomfortable with, since they were really only participants in its aftermath.”
A concurrent theme tying together this collection reckons with home as a place and, by turns, as a feeling. Satya, for example, poses these questions: “How long does a sense of home take to build? How long until a life feels like your own, rather than something you’ve fallen into?”
Set on an island, the story “Certain Truths and Miracles” takes a different tack, literally and metaphorically, on home: “The water is the islanders’ constant — both their center and their perimeter.” In “Salt,” Norris continues this focus in a different albeit still unnamed foreign location, a “world at the perimeter,” a pan surrounded by desert. “Abandoned dwellings littered the pan’s perimeter, and the men loaded the remnants into trucks and donkey carts, hauled them toward the pan’s center. There would be no solid foundation.”
In “Go Way Back,” written in the second person and set in Mississippi, the story’s “you” is a young Black woman in a romantic relationship with Carter:
You admit to him that you’ve only ever dated white boys — boys who look like him, sound like him. Boys who look at you like he does. It’s a pattern you’re not proud of, though it might be something learned: this attraction to the Other, inherited.
The speaker acknowledges that “people who looked like him owned people who looked like you … and it is not his fault or yours. Not either of your doing. But there it lies beside you, tangled up in cotton sheets.”
Another story, “Sentries,” is told from the perspective of Esther, a girl who has begun to discover small dolls concealed in her home. Before a visiting relative tries to burn down the house, Esther thinks, “A home is only who’s inside of it and what they do to keep each other.” Afterwards, she reflects on the unfound dolls: “There, still. A house gone quiet, filled up with something we wouldn’t look for, because finding it made it gone.”
Norris is skillful and generous in allowing the reader to be detective as well as an implicit part of the story. While the characters traverse various ordeals and sometimes experience profound transformation, the reader may be forgiven for thinking that some suffer a bit too much to bring about the others’ revelations.
On the other hand, it’s their individual and collective longings that spur some of Norris’ most vivid writing. The opening story includes these lines: “They’ve been through enough already. Haven’t they been through enough already?” The final piece concludes, “You are not sure if any of it is enough.” Neither heavy-handed nor patronizing, this collection resonates most for the questions it leaves unanswered.
Sarah Norris has written about books and culture for The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and others. After many years away, she’s back in her hometown of Nashville.