Never at Home is a collection of seven short stories which range from fantasy to science fiction, some taking place in mundane, contemporary settings and some having to do with intergalactic wars and alien species. The stories all feature female protagonists and deal with questions of human nature, morality, and the price one pays for interacting with the fantastical. However, the tone, pacing, and quality of the stories vary greatly. Some stories sparkle off the page while most drag on and seem to arrive nowhere.
In "The Tears of Niobe" Duchamp describes a nameless protagonist whose chief characteristic is that she is constantly overwhelmed with information from strangers. This is in fact the driving force of the story, as the reader is trapped inside the protagonist's head and is meant to feel her powerlessness and confusion. However, when it comes to describing the process of receiving the overwhelming, chaotic information, Duchamp uses descriptions such as:
I received the stories of many lives and loves and deaths, the desires and glories and sadnesses of dozens of individuals: their values, the textures of their lives, and even the most minute, perhaps trivial details of their habits, manners and most private functions. (p. 47)
There is never more elaboration; the information is left a vague and general outline, even though most of the story is concerned with how the heroine begins to experience visions of the lives she's consumed and how these affect her.
When the protagonist describes an enormously traumatic event, she tells us that
A few moments after the fire penetrated the palace, the entire building exploded, sending molten flecks of the tubes high into the atmosphere in a fiery cloud that seemed to hang like a turbulent, living sunset over the city. This palace represented the heart of the world created by those the masters called gods. Without it, they would no longer know they were, from whence they had come, or whither they'd been tending. (p. 44)
Considering the heroine is witnessing these events in real time, the description is incredibly dry and gives no sense that she is particularly emotionally affected. A paragraph later, however, she informs the reader that she was full of anger and grief. One might expect the emotional and factual descriptions to have been combined for greater impact, especially considering that "The Tears of Niobe" is such a short story, but instead they are confined to their separate sections, reducing the story's sense of urgency and hindering the reader's ability to connect with the protagonist's feelings.
The protagonist of "The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Slopes of Monte Albano" is Brooke, a woman who discovers that the women in her family can only become pregnant by performing a magic ritual, which takes place in Italy on a particular day each year. The story's sole source of tension lies in the reader following a story-within-a-story to find out the exact details of the ritual. This quality of being removed, of hearing everything second hand in the comfort of someone's living room, is what kills the potential of "Nones." The story begins and ends with the Brooke reading a manuscript, written by one of her mothers about the experience of getting pregnant and given to her after Brooke confesses her own desire for a child. But even when there are long stretches of the story-within-a-story they are periodically interrupted by Brooke's comments about the manuscript, or about her reading experience, which kill the narrative's growing intensity. Any sense of urgency in the story-within-a-story is negated by the reader's knowledge that the relevant characters have all survived to the present day and are, furthermore, telling Brooke and the reader that the ritual is nothing to fret about (which indeed turns out to be true). This makes the plot almost entirely devoid of tension. The emotional stakes never rise very high either—Brooke and the other women undergoing the ritual in the story-within-a-story want to get pregnant in that general "having a baby right now would be nice" way, and the matter isn't urgent or vital to any of them. The only rewarding aspect of "Nones" is the relationship between Brooke and her mother, who develop a greater understanding as a result of the trip to Italy. But this isn't enough to carry a story as long, detailed, and complicated as "Nones" in a satisfying way.
"Explanations Are Clear," the very first story in the collection, concerns Alice, a woman who experiences anxiety about her place in the world and the path she's chosen, which has led her to a life she seemingly was never meant to lead. Tensions rise when, on a trip home to her small, provincial home town, Alice's girlfriend Corinne expresses wonderment rather than repulsion. Instead of siding with Alice in viewing her origins as suffocating and her relatives as close-minded, Corinne sees the town as quaint and the people in it as welcoming. "Explanations Are Clear" is almost an existential horror story, in which Alice's ideas about herself and the fundamentals of her world are suddenly judged incorrect by the person closest to her, leaving her alone and vulnerable. The most terrifying moment is perhaps when Corinne effectively dissolves her relationship with Alice, denouncing her out of nowhere, as Alice had always feared her relatives would do.
The trouble with "Explanations Are Clear" is that Duchamp uses fantastic tropes, such as having Corinne periodically turn into a moth and leave Alice in order to "get lost" in the world, as a means of characterization. This "getting lost" terrifies Alice, who only wants to find a place for herself and stay there, and this causes most of the tension in the story. However, Duchamp relies on the metaphor too heavily without fully integrating it into the otherwise realistic setting. Instead of enhancing the story, the moth metaphor replaces the actual characterization of Corinne that one would expect, making the character feel flat and inaccessible. Without having Corinne feel like a real, fleshed out person, it's hard to empathize with Alice's sense that she's just been deeply betrayed. One wonders whether she ever had any reason to expect Corinne to take her side to begin with. This robs the story of tension as, being confused rather than drawn into the characters' relationship the reader has a hard time identifying with the protagonist and feeling her sense of mounting horror as the ground slips beneath her feet.
One of the highlights of the collection, on the other hand, is "A Question of Grammar." The story is set in a future dystopia and told first person from the point of view of another nameless protagonist, a teenage human girl who has been sold to an alien businessman as the result of her parents' crimes against the government. Her role is to be a translator, but this necessitates a psychic bond between client and service provider, and the only way to achieve it is through a severe chemical dependency. Basically, this teenage girl has to become completely addicted to the alien being who is her employer, physically as well as psychologically. The story is at its most brilliant when it takes this premise and runs with it, using it to amplify the disturbing aspects of the protagonist's situation and explore how her mind is affected by the addiction. There's an honesty and immediacy in "A Question of Grammar" that most of the other stories in the book lack. It uses the first person narrative to paint an intimate, unusual portrait of a heroine in extreme circumstances—a heroine who, in addition to the troubles of being a translator, also has to deal with political conspiracies and intergalactic mysteries, such as trade agreements and attempts to overthrow the government her parents fought against. The reader feels trapped in the protagonist's mind, seeing her darkest, most intimate moments, something all of Duchamp's stories ostensibly promise by employing a first person narrative, but few manage to achieve.
"Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable," on the other hand, is another example of Duchamp's tendency to introduce SF elements which rather than enhancing the story end up needlessly complicating it. The protagonists are three friends, college professors Gerry and Nikky and a professional singer, Laura, all single women in their thirties. One by one they discover a parallel world filled with alien substances (as well as actual aliens) and struggle to figure out the rules of engaging with it. They decide to keep it a secret and involve no one outside the group, which means that when they discover the ill effects the trips are having on them they have no one to consult with but each other. Mostly, the story is about the relationship between the three women, the insecurities and jealousy they feel, with Gerry fearing that she'll be abandoned or tricked by her friends. The science fiction aspect is, again, largely mishandled and the story feels as if it would have been much better if it hadn't been saddled with an unnecessary and complicated premise, or if it had been a novella and had had time to address both the premise and the characters and their interpersonal relationships.
The extraordinary thing about Never at Home is that it's a collection of science fiction stories with women protagonists. Women who aren't white, women in relationships, romantic and otherwise, with other women. This is pitifully rare in the science fiction landscape, and Duchamp's range of representation is a breath of much needed fresh air. However the stories feel underdone, and only a few stories leap off the page. This makes the book a difficult one to recommend—it's flawed, but it features characters one isn't likely to see in the genre very often, and so the scales weighing these two facts against each other will show a different result to each prospective reader.
Marina Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds degrees in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She's fluent in four languages and can order a stiff drink in a dozen more. In her spare time she enjoys writing articles, reviews, and short stories as well as fawning over other people's cats.
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