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New Yorker Fiction Review #252: "Flashlight," by Susan Choi

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Review of a short story from the Sept. 7, 2020 issue of The New Yorker... 

I'm not familiar with the work of American novelist Susan Choi, but I feel like I should be. Her name sounds familiar, her writing style seems familiar, and her face even seems familiar. It appears, however, as though I've never reviewed any of her fiction on this blog (this may be her first short story ever to appear in The New Yorker) and a quick glance at her list of published books reveals I've not read any of them. Oh well... 

What we have here is an emotionally gripping story that starts slow but -- much like the undertow which (***spoiler alert***) takes the life of the main character's father -- eventually sucks you in. The story is told in close third person, through the perspective of Louisa, a 10-year old girl whose father has been killed in an accident. Not only was the father killed in an accident, but Louisa was there when it happened and must cope with the aftermath. 

In that aftermath, her mother is crippled with grief and Louisa has become defiant towards adults as well as a bit of a kleptomaniac. She is caught in a world of her own creation, behind walls she's built up out of her own misunderstanding and anguish toward the world. Enter into this mix a child psychologist who seems neither any more or less competent than any child psychologist one might imagine. The only problem is that he is earnest and genuinely trying to earn Louisa's trust, something she quickly understands and attempts to thwart.

There is at least some amount of emotional pain and frustration in all but the happiest of childhoods. Most of us had to endure a death in the family, a traumatic accident, a divorce, or even any number of varieties of purely emotional trauma at school such as bullying, a learning difficulty, or even just the pain of extreme shyness. 

My point is, even though most of us are not holding our father's hand in the moments before he slips into the ocean and drowns because he cannot swim -- like Louisa -- we must at some point retreat into our own childish world in order to get some refuge from the "adult" world which we cannot understand. To me, that's why this story resonates.

Louisa is a character who takes nothing at face value and, even at the age of 10, is already looking for the hidden motivation in every kindness that is offered to her. Looked at through that lens, the adult world seems pretty fragile and fake. But then, there are dangers inherent in looking too skeptically at everyone's gestures of kindness and -- certainly -- of retreating too far into one's own carefully and tightly walled-off inner room. 

The interesting thing about this story is, it seems like Louisa knows that and, if this story were long enough, we would see her begin to let someone else in past the walls she's built up and let some of her emotions out. It takes a pretty skillful writer to load a short story with this kind of nuance and indications of a broader plot, but it also now makes more sense to me that Susan Choi's metier is long form fiction. 


Sinew Erudition said…
Learning about Susan Choi's short Story Flashlight. You did a great job writing this review. I agree with everything you wrote.