Ann Packer's two novels --- THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN'S PIER and SONGS WITHOUT WORDS --- have become book club favorites and critical successes alike for their wonderfully complex examinations of the ways various sorts of relationships change over time: either suddenly, in the wake of a tragedy, or gradually, over decades of slow evolution. Now, in her second collection of short stories, SWIM BACK TO ME, Packer continues to explore many of the same themes in subtle, deeply personal stories.
Many of the stories focus on the phenomenon of loss, whether dramatic and irrevocable (as in death) or more subtle (as in the alteration of fundamental relationships). In "Dwell Time," a woman, whose ordinarily responsible husband has disappeared, thinks back to the first days of their courtship, eventually discovering that there are things about him she still doesn't know. In "Her Firstborn," a new father finally recognizes the depths of loss. His wife's infant from a previous marriage died when he was a few months old; this era of sorrow in his wife's life has always felt like an abstraction, until he comes to know his newborn son: "Dean's had it all wrong: it isn't that Lisa had a baby who died, but rather that she had a baby, who died." That single comma enfolds so much tragedy and meaning simultaneously; this combination of careful craft and genuine emotion is characteristic of all of Packer's stories.
Just as heartbreaking is "Molten," in which a mother who has lost her teenage son in a tragic accident turns to his library of rock 'n' roll CDs. To her, the music she always insisted he listen to through headphones suddenly takes on new meaning. The lyrics of pain and loss speak directly to her, the distorted guitars and throbbing bass lines imitate her grief and anger. She feels a new connection to her son even as she is reminded constantly of his absence. The fact that he died a "hero's death" means nothing to her, bringing up questions for the reader about whether any death of a young person can possibly result in meaning or sense.
Packer's collection is bookended by two loosely connected stories. "Walk for Mankind" is a novella about a teenage boy's growing awareness of the ways of the world during one stiflingly hot summer in the early 1970s. His family is falling apart; his mother has moved to Oakland, and both of his parents' attempts to connect with him seem misguided at best. Instead, Richard latches on to the Horowitzes, a lively family who seems to possess all that Richard has lost. Their daughter Sasha is Richard's age, and his constantly shifting relationship with her --- and growing understanding of her motivations and situations --- propels his transition from childhood to adolescence. "How do people do it, pry themselves from their past?" a middle-aged Richard reflects as he narrates his story.
In "Things Said Or Done," the book's final story, Sasha --- now middle-aged herself --- seems, at first glance, to have pried herself away from that summer just fine. She barely remembers the year she spent in Stanford with Richard, and she doesn't recall Richard at all. But her attendance at a family wedding forces her to look at her family's dynamics from a different angle, to realize that even she didn't understand everything she thought she knew that summer she was 14. Sasha's gradual understanding and her mature reflections on all that has changed mirror the reader's own experience of traveling through Packer's excellent collection, that sensation of viewing something from an altered angle and consequently seeing it as if for the first time.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 18, 2011