One of the early stories in Aubrey Hirsch’s collection Why We Never Talk About Sugar (Braddock Avenue Books 2013) begins with, “Right from the start, Cris was pretty certain she could get me pregnant.” It’s an ambitious first line, one that is both intriguing and bizarre. While the story’s introduction seems odd (let alone physically impossible), the conclusion is surprisingly, generously human. This epitomizes the power of this collection; driven by a keen sense of character, it offers intensely personal tales that, despite peculiar details, connect with the reader.
There is no distinct link connecting the thematically and geographically diverse collection. The struggles of relationships and parenthood echo in several stories, but the strongest link is the immersive and varied settings. Hirsch adeptly adapts her diction to create vivid, detailed worlds, such as the densely scientific “Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber” or the soldier-speak of “The Specialists.” But perhaps most notable is Hirsch’s sparse, yet meticulously constructed, prose. Her stories focus on the characters and often wring profound conclusions from simple, understated actions. In her many stories focusing on familial conflicts, this directness is piercing, especially in “Strategy #13,” where a girl reconciles with her sickly father’s declining health: “I can still picture my father running up the stairs to break up a fight between me and my brother. Now he is huddled on the floor with blood droplets clinging to his hair.” Even in the collection’s eponymous, final story, which enters the realm of magic realism, the frank narration elevates it to a meditative fable on the subject of love.
“Snakeskin” exemplifies Hirsch’s minimalist power. The story is set within a high school, barely longer than two pages, and focuses entirely on the effect of a series of discarded snakeskins discovered in a high school. At first, the principal assumes it is a prankster, but the school eventually adapts to the snake’s unseen presence, described by Hirsch’s careful eye: “students pile their schoolbooks under the legs of their desks to raise them off the ground.” It is quirky, clever, but ultimately a fascinating portrait of the school’s principal. A completely different story, “The Specialists,” addresses sexual assault in the military, through through the lens of two soldiers going through boot camp. Its violent finale manages to feel both genuine and thrilling, and is perhaps the collection’s single most powerful segment.
As with many fiction collections, not all stories in Sugar are equally enthralling. In “Paradise Hardware,” a couple’s infertility struggles are dramatically amplified to the point of absurdity, derailing the story from reality. And with several stories focusing on troubled relationships, the weaker ones (“Made in Indonesia”) seem more like palate cleansers for her more developed, detailed stories. Despite these inconsistencies, it is difficult not to be won over by the minimalist prose and candid emotion of Hirsch’s writing. Some of the stories seem ridiculous, others are highly dramatized, but all reflect a resonating humanity. We observe the collection’s vast array of characters, but in the end, we see ourselves reflected.