Between Lives: Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories by Sara Majka (Graywolf Press, 2016)

Jacqueline Kolosov
| Reviews


Sara Majka’s stories are imbued with longing for lost loved ones and lost homes in places where the narrator, Anne, has lived. But the stories are also about places she has not experienced and people who slip away before she has a chance to know them. One story that encapsulates Majka’s wistful style is “The Museum Assistant,” which finds Anne working at an obscure college museum on New York’s Upper East Side. At the story’s opening, a man comes into the museum, evoking memories of the father who abandoned the family many years before. Eventually Anne realizes the source of this affinity: “…there he was, looking much like a man lost in a dream. That might have been why he had reminded me of my father, who would watch my brother and me playing on the floor, or by the woods, or near the sea with the same look, as if he had already left us.” Absence, then, the sense of having already lost someone, paradoxically and yet fittingly triggers the need for connection.

Throughout this collection, I found myself reminded of the trilogy of highly atmospheric films by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, films that train the viewer to search each detail carefully. This is one of Majka’s strategies also, as is her preoccupation with the possibility of a person having a double somewhere in the world (the premise at the heart of Kieslowski’s “Red”). One early story, “Boy with Finch,” confronts the possibility of doubles head-on. The setting is a small town in Maine, and Anne is a child living in an apartment with her mother and brother. Her neighbors include another single mother and her two children. Anne is entranced by the son, Eli, a beautiful, introspective boy: “Always with him I thought not of color, but of memory of color. Even his eyes were the flattest, stillest blue.” Eventually Eli shares his secret with Anne: a painting in folk art style of a boy with a bird that he found hidden in the apartment. The boy looks a great deal like Eli did at six, all the way down to the clothes that he wears. The narrative suggests that Anne and Eli are soul mates because of their sensitivity and artistic temperaments. Years later, after Anne and Eli are grown and he has gone to work at an art gallery in Europe, Anne goes hunting for the painting in the hiding place. The painting of the boy with the bird is gone; what she finds instead is a painting of “another child done in the same manner....She looked like me as a child. Her hair was like a bird’s....Everything had been painted still and flat except the eyes. They were brown and filled with worry.” The mystery of these paintings, however evocative, is not truly resolved in the story, an element I found frustrating here and at other points in the collection. Ultimately, though, I do not think we are meant to read Majka’s stories for plot but for atmosphere and for passages that stay with or within us long after the story has ended.

In “White Heart Bar,” which begins with the narrator reading a headline about a history professor who has been caught stealing maps, one early sentence speaks to the collection as a whole: “In those days, during the time of the lost girl, I was living with my husband in a grand but decrepit apartment in an area of Portland that was known as resurgent, a description that carried with it more than a little wistfulness” (emphasis added). The narrator, who often feels “vacant” and in the title story describes herself as “lost,” is one of two lost girls in “The White Heart”; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Anne is the lost girl’s double. What is especially important is Majka’s use of the word “resurgent” alongside “wistfulness.” “Resurgent” comes from the Latin resurgere and means to “rise again, lift oneself, be restored.” A place—a city, a town—in the collection may be resurgent, but it is the people in this collection, the narrator in particular, who long for restoration, while simultaneously realizing that this is not possible because there was never a state of wholeness to begin with.

But this is only half of the picture. The other compelling word here is “wistfulness,” which means “wishful” as well as “longingly pensive, musing.” Musing is what these extremely pensive stories do best, despite the fact that in so many of them Anne is on the move. In the title story, Anne reveals that “for a number of years I had been struggling to hold myself together.” The reason remains unanswered, and in the process Anne attains a new dimension: she becomes a contemporary Everywoman. What I’d call resurgent wistfulness fuels a passage such as this: “There was something in the places I kept leaving behind. I imagined staying and going inside, imagined the room I would enter. It was as if the rooms and my desire for them were gathering in me as I traveled.” The passage demonstrates the generative power of longing, of absence that could but will not become presence. It is this energy that pervades the stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In and makes it a memorable collection.

Jacqueline Kolosov has new poetry and prose in the Sewanee Review, the Southern Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has published three poetry collections, most recently Memory of Blue (Salmon, 2014) and several YA novels, including A Sweet Disorder. Find her at

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