Before encountering any of the 22 stories in Vanessa Farnsworth’s debut collection, readers may note the volume’s salient dedication: “For my father, who wouldn’t have understood this book, but who would’ve liked the fact that I wrote it.” This inscription is both a challenge and a warning with regard to the stories that follow.
Farnsworth is a science journalist who published the 2013 non-fiction work Rain on a Distant Roof, about the Lyme disease crisis in Canada. So it’s no surprise that a number of the stories in The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind grapple with illness and death. In the first story, “The Plaid Shoes,” a 37-year-old woman diagnosed with breast cancer finds solace in life’s small guilty pleasures: “pasta and peanut butter give Claire far more comfort than the broccoli and onions which are supposed to be cancer’s worst enemies.” That story is followed by “The Shrug,” in which a woman on the verge of death has a conversation with her deceased grandfather through the ceiling tiles above her hospital bed.
In fact, an invisible thread weaves its way through the entire collection, knitting the stories together like a patchwork quilt. Where “The Shrug” ends with a dying woman staring at the ceiling, the next story, “Universal Healthcare,” begins with a woman “lying flat on [her] driveway, staring up at the clouds.” The story after that, “Evolution,” opens on a woman retrieving a troubling letter from the mailbox at the end of her driveway.
This pattern of narrative and thematic linkage continues throughout the collection, while the stories themselves run the gamut from mundane to metaphysical to absurd. Characters go out for drinks looking to get laid, float bodiless through purgatory, or encounter cannibals in a post-apocalyptic landscape. They also grapple with heartbreak. In “Breaking Glass,” one of the collection’s strongest entries, a woman ponders her ex-lover’s suicide, noting that the act “took more introspection than most people could muster.”
Though Farnsworth’s stories aren’t always the most accessible, they remind us that the purpose of fiction is not always to entertain but occasionally to confound expectations, provoke discomfort, or probe the various folds of the unknown.