Friday 23 April 2021

Review by Kate Durban of "In Their Absence" by Hannah Stevens

Countless people are lost every year. Hannah Stevens’s debut collection of short stories is a haunting exploration of what it means to be missing, both for those that disappear and those left behind. She follows her characters so closely that the reader can’t help but feel part of each devastating experience. Each story is breathtaking, and lingers in the memory long after the last beautiful page. 

One after another, the stories deal with yet another view of what it means to lose or be lost or to bear witness to loss: there is death, abduction, and abandonment. There is the couple on holiday who visit a café, where their toddler disappears from under the table when they are momentarily distracted. Then there is the hotel room where a man and a woman have sex after meeting in a bar. They drink and snort cocaine and then she jumps out of the window. And there are numerous others, each as painful and memorable as the last.

Hannah’s seemingly effortless prose brings her stories alive with devastating details that are both deeply authentic and agonisingly poignant. One couple, who are moving out of their house following the disappearance of their child, leave behind an empty swing in the back garden. The worn spots beneath it are being covered over by grass, now growing unimpeded by the feet of the missing child. There is the man who throws himself under a train, witnessed by the woman who innocently follows him to the platform. She likes his Fedora and picks up his still-warm coffee cup from the platform on which he stood just moments before.  The imagery is sparse but beautiful. 

The stories are sometimes connected which adds texture and augments the impact of each already powerful narrative The wife of the man in the fedora  receives his suicide note by text and doesn’t know which service to ask for when she dials 999.There is the story of a woman who runs away and joins the circus, followed by the story of her husband scanning the garden from which she has just disappeared. 

It might be tempting to avoid this book, which shines its lens so relentlessly into the darkness of what it means to be missing. But these stories are like jewels, small, but beautifully complex and bright. In them, perhaps we recognise our own secret desire to renounce our responsibilities, to disappear, as well as the losses we all inevitably experience in life.

About the reviewer
Kate Durban is a Cancer Wellbeing Specialist Nurse who lives in Northamptonshire with her husband and two dogs. She is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

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