Review: 'To Begin Again'
By Marisela Chavez
Special to the Express-News
Struggling with the isolating effect of sudden change stirs inner turmoil. And when it's not yours, it's entertaining. Few can resist gawking at a car crash or watching competing drag queens and chefs standing on a televised chopping block.
Jen Knox, a San Antonio College instructor and author of the memoir “Musical Chairs,” sets the cast of her new story collection, “To Begin Again,” in moments of transition and isolation, be it within a family, the world or one's aging mind.
Similar to how fans of the personal essay eavesdrop by invitation while essayists explore the human condition, readers of these 23 stories overhear characters working through their own understanding of life.
Although “To Begin Again” is a work of fiction, Knox's skill as a memoirist permeates. Whether told in first or third person, the language reads confessional; narrator and speaker alike expound on life's tribulations in voices both unapologetic and reflective. The book's title hints at a conclusion the characters never explicitly draw: begin again, start over, try again because you can.
The opening story, “At the Window,” lays the collection's foundation. While walking down the street, a homeless man unexpectedly socks the speaker in the jaw, and although numerous people observe, no one intervenes. The victim questions her assailant's motivation and the witnesses' lack of response. She confesses: “It was, to my mind, more an act of nature than one of aggression, or even free will. In a strange way, in fact, I feel as though he were as much a victim of his own rage as I had been. So why not extend the same sympathies to the people in the window?”
The stories that follow echo this contemplative focus on the various incarnations of isolation and the two-headed beast, perpetrator and victim, within each of us.
In “Asleep” and “Composure,” young women reflect on social, romantic and geographic isolation. The protagonist of “Asleep” is awakened by a visit from her sickly mother, who wheels in and begins a spontaneous love affair with a much younger man and, in turn, pushes her daughter to take control of her own love life. A young girl contemplates independence and co-dependence on a family visit in “Composure.” Subjection to rowdy neighbors in her aunt's apartment building widens the girl's perspective, more so when her aunt later stabs the abusive neighbor to death.
Writing mature characters is Knox at her best. Although the heroes of “Absurd Hunger” and “Disengaged” battle dulling minds, they shine with self-assurance. The refreshingly brash Walter of “Absurd Hunger” finds solace by writing hilariously touching letters to his dead wife. The task begins as an assignment in grief therapy but turns into something much larger. The speaker's mind in “Disengaged” gently deteriorates alongside a keepsake sunflower given to her by Henry, a man she befriended, maybe loved, at an age well past their prime. Her pragmatic voice slowly sweetens and leaves the reader with an affecting image of an old woman isolated in a nursing home but surrounded by memories.
“To Begin Again” is slim but packed. Any of the 23 stories could grow into a longer work, and, it is hoped, one will.
San Antonian Marisela Chavez is a San Antonio writer and tutor at Our Lady of the Lake
Read more: http://www.mysanantonio.com/entertainment/books/article/Isolation-transition-more-entertaining-than-it-1456966.php#ixzz1RjCRIilD