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September 9, 2014 / GO Brooklyn / Books / February Houses

‘Unravished’ by Hester Kaplan

Background stories: F’Greene-published short story collection digs up the past

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Regrets? They’ve had a few — and it makes for great reading!

Hester Kaplan’s new short story collection “Unravished,” published by Fort Greene’s Ig Press earlier this year, is the work of an accomplished writer in command of her genre.

Each of the eight stories in the collection is worth reading — most are excellent, and a few are unforgettable. You will know those in the latter category when you finish them and their full import sinks in. You will feel aghast or exhilarated, electrified by the awareness you have just brushed against something profound.

The book’s general milieu is New England. The environments, people, and situations encountered tend to be middle-class or above, but the emotional range is broad and deep. Kaplan’s protagonists are adults with adult concerns — people with the sorts of complicated lives recognizable to anyone who has weathered a long-term relationship or two.

The theme, often, is the role or relevance of the past — ex-lovers, historic homes, more ex-lovers, landscapes made famous by dead painters, buried regrets, and kids from previous relationships. Some of Kaplan’s characters are clinging to what should be closed chapters of their lives, while others fight to escape bygones that won’t stay gone. Guilt, obligation, passionate love, or sentimental force of habit all make letting go hard to do.

Several of the stories hinge on secrets long held and climactically revealed. One tale in particular brings down the hammer with a last-act revelation that took this reader’s breath away — a terrible, looming truth rising unexpectedly from well-placed details. Experientially, reading it was like uneasily scanning the front of a house, finding nothing amiss, and then suddenly noticing a ghastly face leering back from an upper window. It had been there all along, but Kaplan makes sure the shock arrives just when it should, at the same moment it hits the story’s hero. Attendant revelations follow pell-mell upon it, deepening the distress, and the story takes an unexpected final form, opening out like an umbrella. Kaplan’s convincing characterization and psychological realism make this maneuver graceful. It is an act of story craft that functions flawlessly without calling attention to itself.

While the other stories take place in a familiar reality, the collection’s final story, “This is Your Last Swim,” is a standout piece of speculative fiction. Set amidst an unusually plausible apocalypse, it seeks to address how a person’s past could possibly matter when there is no longer any future. Many writers across many mediums have tackled versions of this question, but I doubt any will deliver as memorable an exploration of its possibilities as Kaplan does.

This is a very fine book of stories, highlighted by some absolute barn-burners, and the collections’s final piece gives ample reason to hope this author will continue to pursue her subject matter in whatever new directions it leads her.

“Unravished” is available from Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Elliott Place and S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246–0200, www.greenlightbookstore.com].

“February Houses,” named after the 20th-century Brooklyn arts commune, spotlights recent or noteworthy literature from Brooklyn publishers. To send books for review, contact xjulesbentleyx@gmail.com.

Updated 3:14 am, September 9, 2014
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