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Small Mercies

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood mines the nuances of daily life in A Small Thing to Want

In A Small Thing to Want, a collection of short stories by Johnson City writer Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, the most vital moments are often the most private. Cawood’s stories occupy a space so close-held that they feel secretive, and her characters struggle to navigate the boundary between themselves and an unreliable world. One woman recalls her mother’s warning “to keep tight-lipped about everything, anything — guárdate los secretos — because once you gave away secrets, people would use them to steal other things from you.”

For the most part, the stories in Small Thing play in a quiet register, focusing on intimate moments in their characters’ lives. Two lovers trade points of view on their waning affair during an Ohio snowstorm. A woman navigates strained dynamics and loyalties after the divorce of her boyfriend’s parents. A man questions the solidity of his new relationship after attending the funeral of his ex-wife’s father. Cawood’s stories seldom rise into highly dramatized conflicts, but they often tap a deep well of compassion for their characters’ inner struggles.

“What She Wants” follows a young woman who must juggle the emotional tensions between her mother and sister in the runup to a family wedding. While this story’s characters face big decisions within the actions of the plot, which resemble any number of film comedies about weddings, the story itself stays closely focused on the family’s charming dynamics. The same is true for “Good Enough,” in which an irascible man attempts to grow a romantic connection to his recently widowed neighbor. The subtle character details define what’s most memorable about the story.

Thorny power struggles inside marriages provide Cawood with many of her most affecting subjects and insights. The collection’s final trio of stories follows Suzette, a counselor at a women’s center whose fraught marriage leads to a series of meditations on her own timidity and, over time, her self-determination. As her marriage dissolves, Suzette must grapple with her lack of clarity and agency when it comes to her own wishes.

Cawood writes Suzette’s point of view with observant sensitivity. For example, Suzette endures an awkward swim meet alongside her estranged husband, Mig. Noting how her daughter’s swim cap is “robin-egg blue, the color of beginnings but also the shade of an ocean at the end of a day,” Suzette views her immediate surroundings through the confusing lens of her divorce — a lens that contains her family’s past, present, and future. When Mig turns to her at the end of the scene, his handsome eyes “were like coins worth something in the country of marriage but now valueless in her own.”

The Suzette stories also pull in secondary characters who appear as protagonists in earlier stories, which allows the collection to accrue a greater sense of scale and cohesion. By mining the nuances of her characters’ everyday lives, Cawood’s creates her collection’s true strength — narrating the crossroads moments in which people choose tenderness when bitterness or cruelty might be easier.

A Small Thing to Want honors the intimate encounters and decisions that can propel our lives in unexpected directions. Cawood brings subtlety and compassion to such private moments, shining a light on their resonating power.

Small Mercies

Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and is the fiction editor of Peauxdunque Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Mississippi Review, ShenandoahThe Florida ReviewTupelo QuarterlyBayou Magazine OnlineLate Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives near Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.