Lives on the edge

Hester Kaplan's 'Unravished'
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  July 2, 2014


No one would dispute the fact that Hester Kaplan’s writing is effective and well-crafted, as she digs into the underbelly of American society in her latest book of short stories, Unravished. She skillfully takes the reader through the everyday worries and fears of people that contribute — like never-ending water droplets in a waterfall — to everyone’s worries and fears about society at large and the world as a whole.

But because these characters (mostly) don’t like themselves or are carrying such burdens of guilt or shame or confusion that they can’t seem to shake themselves free of it all, it’s hard for the reader to work up much empathy or understanding for the psychological problems they somehow hope to resolve. There’s the successful wife and mother remembering her brief affair with the mayor who’s on the verge of being indicted for corruption. Sound familiar? (Kaplan lives in Providence.) “The School of Politics” has enough pointed local references to be unmistakable, and Kaplan nails the pervasive corruption of a powerful man in a powerful position.

The most personal story is also one of the most disturbing. “Cold-Cocked” refers to a mother’s outrage at the attack on her teenaged son, who had been out trick-or-treating with his friends. That violence against someone she cherishes spins her brain into multiple memories of an old boyfriend, whose revelations to her of a violent attack on him have never left her. It’s a sharp reminder of how much psychic trauma lingers for those touched by physical harm from other people, be it to themselves, family members, or friends.

So many of these characters have had their hearts broken — by loving too much or too little, by misplaced affection, by not having been loved themselves. Their searches for some measure of resolution to their pain are, in Kaplan’s prose, quite painful too. Sometimes there’s a desperate trust by the main character that the people around him or her will change, become nicer somehow, but they seldom do, and the reader is left with a dull and disheartening sense of so many lost souls out there, damaged beyond repair, beyond the ability to change.

Kaplan’s metaphors, whether in a phrase, a setting, or an action, are incisive and, for the most part, not over-used. There are physically painful visits to an uncaring dentist for the agonizingly insecure and anxious protagonist in “The Aerialist”; that same dentist’s daughter trains on the trapeze to escape the earthly bonds imposed by her mother. In “Companion Animal,” a lonely man who tends caged and sickly dogs at a shelter eventually grasps the caged nature of his teenaged neighbor’s life.

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