In When Are You Coming Home?, Bryn Chancellor’s debut story collection, a woman in red cowboy boots and a too-short skirt climbs the slippery marble stairs on the Tennessee capitol’s plaza, contemplating the “hollow, looping kind of vertigo” that might precede a public tumble. “You don’t have to look back to feel the fall,” she thinks. The story carries the title “All This History At Once,” a phrase that characterizes every story in the collection.
Chancellor, a graduate of the Vanderbilt University M.F.A. program, has set most of her stories in the cities and small towns of Arizona, where the unending needs of human civilization meet the starkness of the desert land. Likewise, her characters confront times of change in their own personal landscapes, transitioning from one era of life to another. When we meet them, they are dwelling somewhere between these eras, unsure where they fit or how they’ll proceed. They feel these uneasy intersections keenly, and their methods of enduring them vary wildly. A married couple attempt a shared “vow of silence” in order to weather a tense argument. A woman travelling abroad searches her widowed mother’s face for evidence of her recent plastic surgery. A teacher whose husband has just left her dyes her hair “Scarlet O’Haira” orange and blows off steam at the local amateur-wrestling night. A grieving father looks out his window for answers, “searching for the moon in the sky, suddenly frantic to see that reassuring orb from a distance, to connect the unimaginable sight before him with reality.”
As her characters experience these at-the-crossroads changes, Chancellor often relies on metaphorical language. A woman describes her mother’s prognosis after a diagnosis of dementia: “The doctors said she could live on in this state for a decade or more, leaking memory and reason like water from a cracked sink pipe.” A young man realizes how much more his older lover knows about life’s heartaches than he does, and he feels “something slip and give, like a bag of groceries falling out of his arms to the pavement.” A hairstylist reels from the failure of her first Internet dating attempt, a tentative affair during which “she had felt old and new things” simultaneously.
The stories of When Are You Coming Home? illuminate the heightened emotion, seemingly nonsensical decision-making, and sudden insight that often arise during the moments of juncture between our past and present lives. These characters may not know where they are headed, but in these crucible moments Chancellor shows us powerful glimpses of all the “old and new things” that have made them who they are.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction is forthcoming from The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Late Night Library, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.