BET­TER TIMES

Sara Batkie, Univer­sity of Ne­braska Press (SEPTEM­BER) Soft­cover $17.95 (156pp) 978-1-4962-0787-6

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight | Debut Fiction - LETI­TIA MONT­GOMERY-RODGERS

Mov­ing from the re­cent past into the fu­ture, Sara Batkie’s short story col­lec­tion Bet­ter Times tra­verses lives that are sub­tly or dras­ti­cally twisted away from what is fa­mil­iar. Mys­tery and sur­re­al­ism un­der­lie the mun­dane, their charges lin­ger­ing in the air.

Di­vided into three sec­tions—“the Re­cent Past,” “The Mod­ern Age,” and “The World to Come”—the col­lec­tion strikes a con­tin­ual bal­ance be­tween an­tic­i­pa­tion and nos­tal­gia for a time that never quite ma­te­ri­al­izes. It lingers on thresh­olds. Within and be­tween sec­tions, sto­ries ex­ist in times that are not def­i­nitely stated or clearly chrono­log­i­cal; the struc­tural util­ity of the di­vi­sions be­comes un­clear. Whether they are set in the present, the fu­ture, or the past, though, the sto­ries’ emo­tional com­plex­ity is the same.

Like a painter ex­e­cut­ing a land­scape study, Batkie cre­ates at­mos­pheres, lay­er­ing emo­tional tex­tures and moods upon one an­other from story to story. Each is “just one part of a silence so full and com­plete it was as if it was wait­ing to be heard.” The sto­ries dip into ev­ery­day lives, from a Ja­panese fam­ily dur­ing World War II to a wo­man try­ing to get rid of her ghost breast to half of a po­lar vil­lage that wakes up to dis­cover that they’re adrift. These char­ac­ters are be­sieged. Dis­tance and alien­ation are a pre­vail­ing theme.

From ad­dress­ing its char­ac­ters’ heart­breaks to their grief to their deep, un­re­lieved un­cer­tainty, Bet­ter Times sets an un­hur­ried pace. There’s both ten­sion and a dis­tinct lack of ur­gency in these nar­ra­tives—a con­trolled lethargy that feeds, rather than di­min­ishes, the emo­tional stakes. Each sit­u­a­tion is suf­fused with an air of hope­less­ness. The prom­ise of bet­ter times is re­vealed as a plat­i­tude; mo­ments refuse to pass.

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